In Spite of Legal Opinion, Edwards-Rankin Steps Down…

In Spite of Legal Opinion, Edwards-Rankin Steps Down from Holly Service Positions

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Feb. 17, 2020)

Holly, MI – Nicole Edwards-Rankin resigned from two positions last week after debate arose over whether her appointments to the Historical Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals violated Village of Holly Charter’s nepotism clause because of her marriage to Councilperson Chris Rankin.

The Village Attorney determined there was no conflict, but people online continued to debate the attorney’s decision and the charter.

Section 4.2 of the Village Charter says “Relatives by blood or marriage of any council member or the village manager… shall be disqualified from holding appointive office, or from being employed by the village during the term of office of such Council Member of Village Manager, except and unless said relatives are bona fide appointive officers or employees of the village at the time of the election of such officers or employees of the village at the time of the election of such officer or appointment of such Village Manager.”

When Nicole decided to run for Village Council President in the same election that Rankin was running to retain his council seat, the Village discussed the Charter requirements with an attorney.  The Rankins wed on July 8, 2018, after they had filed with the County Clerk to run.  Nicole was unsuccessful in her race, but Chris was re-elected.  Nicole wanted to continue being involved in the community.  She had already been serving on the HDC, and decided to also apply for the ZBA.  The Village attorney reviewed the nepotism clause and argued that since ZBA and HDC appointments are for members and not officers, therefore the wording of the charter did not apply to those positions.

However, the matter was resurrected recently when someone posted the charter provision online and called for one of the Rankins to step down. And then a former council member came forward with memories of a similar circumstance in which a family member wasn’t appointed.

Former council member Jim Clark and his mother in law that found themselves in a similar position when she was passed over for an appointment due to the nepotism clause.

Nicole explained the circumstances which led to her resignation, stating “Tuesday, February 11th was the regular Village council meeting. I don’t usually go, but was on the agenda that evening for my Historic District Commission presentation.

“During Public Comments, a former village councilman shared his feelings about the nepotism section, and the experience his family had thirty years prior with the same section. I could really feel for his mother-in-law and their family. It was these comments that lead to my resignation.

“I was not required to resign, no one even suggested the idea. It was my own choice. There were quite a few people that tried to talk me out of it, a lot of people were really sad about my decision, but respected my integrity for resigning. I could have continued to serve without issue because the Village Attorney made a valid legal argument why it wasn’t a violation of the charter and ordinance. Continuing to serve out my appointments just didn’t feel right.”

Chris and Nicole, as well as others in the community, are discussing a potential charter change to update it not just for this situation, but for others. “My resignation is bittersweet,” Nicole said.  “I’m excited that the nepotism section of the charter and ordinance could be reviewed, brought up to date, and a charter amendment could go before the voters in the next general election. Just having a less ambiguous version of the section will be nice, but societal changes like domestic partnerships, same sex marriage, gender equality and inclusive communities can be taken into consideration hopefully making it easier for people to participate. Being a part of that is something I am really proud of even if it meant giving up my appointment to HDC and a project I’m really passionate about.”

That same meeting, Nicole presented information about a Historic District Commission redistricting project that had been stalled for about six years.  “This was the first step in the bigger project of submitting our Historic District to the State of Michigan to become a Certified Local Government, making Holly eligible for additional grant money for special historic projects like the Holly Union Depot. Part of the submission process is an inventory of each home in the district with the story about its owners and the home’s architectural significance. I’ve spent the last two years researching the historic homes in Holly – countless hours reading the Holly Herald from 1900 – 1920 on microfiche at the Holly Township library, visits to Oakland County records retention room to find original deeds, and even a couple trips to Lansing.

“There’s grant money available, and the pool competing for those dollars is a lot smaller since there are only 30 CLG communities in the state. It was a no-brainer to go after this certification for the community.  It’s pretty heartbreaking not to be a part of these next steps for this process, especially after all of the time I already have invested. The worst thing that could happen is for it to get stalled out again.”

Although she has resigned from the boards, she plans to continue remaining active.  “I volunteer regularly cooking dinner at the Moose Lodge and this year was awarded co-worker of the year. I write for the annual Holly Kiwanis newspaper sale that generates money to fund community programs. I haven’t missed a parks clean-up day in the last ten years, and spring is just around the corner. For now I’m taking a pause, but I’m excited for what’s next. I’m entertaining a couple options, and have been approached about running for a couple different elected positions. I’ve got a lot of passion and energy, and I know just the right thing will present itself for me to invest in.”

She’s also hoping that as discussions happen people will recognize that women play an increasingly larger role in local governance.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t express that in 2020, at the 100th anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement that we as a nation and community are still hung up on whether my last name is the same as my husbands, the ability for someone to contribute is determined by their marital status, and that individuality and personal perspective is somehow dissolved once you become someone’s wife. I didn’t stop being Nicole Edwards when I became Mrs. Rankin, and my status as a person didn’t diminish because of it either,” she said.

“I understand why there is a nepotism section, and that as a protective measure against wrong doing in the interests of financial gain on the part of elected and employed persons a nepotism section would be appropriate. Married, not married, related, not related – people do bad things. Discouraging good people with nothing to gain from participating in government because of their marital status doesn’t make sense to me.”

Chris is still rooting for his wife’s involvement, and for a review of the Charter.  “Some may disagree, but I think the nepotism clause in the Charter does need to be addressed. If two lawyers at the same firm come up with two different interpretations in two different decades, then something is not as clear as it should be. I will request that the Charter & Ordinance committee review the clause. And since I sit on that committee, I will also request to have another Council member take my place on the committee for that action. As much as I believe that I could be objective during a review of the clause, I would rather avoid even the appearance of my having directed the discussion in a particular direction.”

“I would also like everyone to know that I am very proud of Nicole for stepping down in light of the ambiguity of the Charter,” Chris added.  “I think she showed a lot of integrity stepping down until the issue can be clarified more completely.”

Community involvement is important to the Rankin Family, whether there is a title attached to the volunteering or not.  “Nicole and I were both active in the community before we met. In fact, it’s how we met,” Chris said.  “She was hosting a ‘meet the candidates’ as Chamber Director when I was running for Council in 2014. Our first joint effort was a cleanup of Alley Street, which then led to the joint effort at Crapo Park where we installed the flower boxes in front of the pavilion.

“We both love having a hand in improving the community, and we involve the boys whenever we can so that they will also learn to feel good about giving back.”

Village Manager Jerry Walker said he had informed Nicole that she did not have to resign before she made the decision.

“While the charter language was a bit ambiguous, there was no issue. While I commend Nicole on her voluntary resignation, because she did not want to add controversy to the community it was not necessary,” Walker said.  “Her work on the ZBA and HDC was invaluable. She literally invested hundreds of hours into the HDC Boundary Committee Study. She will be sorely missed.”

Village President Tom McKenny agreed with the attorney and Village Manager. “I reviewed the Charter provision regarding nepotism and the Village Attorney’s opinion. I agree with the attorney that the charter language is ambiguous, and I think that the council’s charter and ordinance committee should review the nepotism provision.  I understand, but regret Nicole’s decision to resign. Nicole’s energy will be sorely missed.”

Her resignation leaves two open positions in the Village – a seat on the Historic District Commission and the Zoning Board of Appeals.  Village residents are invited to apply for the positions.

President McKenney is hopeful that others will step up to be involved.  “Village policy and direction are the province of village residents, and especially those residents that sit on our several boards and commissions. The planning commission, historic district commission, park commission and zoning board of appeals do the groundwork and set policy and direction. Local government needs residents to volunteer their time and energy to process information, deliberate and set policy and direction,” he said.

For more information on serving on boards and commissions, visit the Village of Holly website.

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