ROGERS CITY - The Presque Isle County Elections Commission rejected language for a petition to recall Onaway's mayor and two of its city commissioners.
At a clarity hearing Wednesday morning, commission Chairman Don McLennan, County Treasurer Bridget LaLonde and County Clerk Ann Marie Main unanimously agreed that two of the three allegations in the petition language weren't based on fact. After considering the language and hearing from Onaway City Manager Joe Hefele and petitioner Judy Shaloy, among others, the commission reached its decision.
Shaloy filed the petition earlier in April on behalf of a citizens committee unhappy with city officials' attempt to roll Onaway Police Chief Jim Gibson into the Presque Isle County Sheriff Department, she said at the time. The petition language accuses Mayor Gary Wregglesworth and Commissioners Chuck Abshagen and Jessie Horrocks of failing to consider all options to keep the police department, being unresponsive to voters during city meetings and losing the trust of city voters to act in the city's best interest.
McLennan said the claims that Abshagen, Horrocks and Wregglesworth had become unresponsive to voters was "less than clear," and difficult for the three to respond to. He also said the allegation that voters had lost faith in the three city officials failed to meet statutory requirements for having a factual basis.
"This is a conclusionary statement, not a statement of fact," he said.
McLennan pointed out that Wednesday's hearing was the commission's first since the state adopted a new requirement that recall petition language needs to have a factual basis. Prior to this recent addition, the language only needed to be clear. However, the commission avoided the task of determining whether the allegations in Shaloy's petition language were true or false. Rather, they determined if they were statements of fact or opinion.
"If the board was to take the position that we're going to determine whether the allegations are factual, we'd be removing from the electorate the ability to make that decision," he said. "That's not a democracy."
The commission was required to throw out the entire petition if any part of it was found to be unclear or not factual, McLennan said. While two of the three failed to meet these standards, the commission found allegation that Abshagen, Horrocks and Wregglesworth failed to consider all options to keep the police department to be a statement of fact.
After the hearing, Shaloy said she'll go over a new petition with the citizens committee, and had a good idea of what to include now that the elections commission found the first allegation acceptable.
"We know what to write, they told us," she said. "It's not over yet."
Before the commission reached its decision, Hefele said he believed the petition to be completely baseless.
"Nothing in this petition filed by Ms. Shaloy is known to be true, and many can be easily proven false," he said.
Hefele went on to say that city commissioners did consider several options on what to do with its police department, which it's looking to get rid of to plug a large budget hole. He disputed part of the first accusation, which states that city officials have failed to make decisions to protect the city's safety and security. He pointed out that city commissioners were working on a deal to pay the county sheriff's department $50,000 to take on Gibson and have him patrol in the city.
Hefele also took issue with the accusation that Abshagen, Horrocks and Wregglesworth had become unresponsive.
"I can only assume that because Ms. Shaloy isn't hearing what she wants to hear, she considers that to be unresponsive," he said.
Finally, Hefele disputed the claim that voters had lost confidence in the mayor and two commissioners, saying they have all been elected to multiple terms. When the three were last elected, they ran unopposed.
"That indicates to me an electorate that's quite satisfied with its officials," he said.
Shaloy said she and others feel shut out of city commission meetings. She recalled a time when Wregglesworth warned attendees not to make derogatory remarks, saying he's "lived here long enough that I've got dirt on everybody."
After the hearing, Wregglesworth said the remark was taken out of context. Instead, he told attendees at the meeting that he wouldn't tolerate any personal attacks because he's lived in the city long enough that he can make a few himself.
Shaloy also told the commission that city officials failed to respond to a request to raise funds to save the city's police department. Commissioner Bernie Schmeltzer disputed that claim, saying he and other city officials had told the citizens committee they'd need to raise about $50,000.
Abshagen and Wregglesworth both said they were glad the commission had rejected the language, although Abshagen added he didn't think the matter was over.