Holly Township Parks Stepping Towards Transparency
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Jan. 10, 2019)
Holly, MI – In a meeting that lasted until well after 9pm, the Holly Township Parks Board tackled several topics related to communication and transparency. This follows several months of social media discussion and resident questions about the board, as well as a wave of changes brought on by the public spotlight.
Prior to Wednesday evening’s meeting, the board did not receive monthly finance reports. In October the board voted to direct Holly Township Parks Director Toni Brinker to start providing reports that include revenue and expenditures. Reports for Oct, Nov, and Dec. were provided to board members, and will be done monthly moving forward.
Board member Steven Laplante, who was elected Nov. 6, asked that Brinker explain personnel expenses. The department hires a program director who works part time from October through April and full time May through September, Brinker said. The position has been filled previously by Brinker’s daughter, who in 2018 earned about $20,000. Additionally there is about $7,000 in maintenance labor that is done by independent contractors including Parks Board Chairperson Joe Hutchins. There are also expenses for program staff and lifeguards.
Laplante requested, and the board passed, a motion that Brinker and staff begin completing reports that break down hours and tasks so there can be more accountability understanding by the board and the public of what employees are doing with their time.
The board also instructed the Director to begin applying for grants that could bring money in for park improvements. Laplante gave the example of White Lake Township, which recently was awarded a $1.4 million grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund to purchase a former campground property on Brendel Lake. He presented the board with information about various grant programs. The board voted to instruct Brinker to apply for a grant for an American Ninja Warrior obstacle course.
He noted that Brinker has experience writing grants, and said it was time to start looking at more.
Board members talked about various ideas for grants, with Chairperson Joe Hutchins cautioning that many grants have a matching funds requirement, and that grants are very competitive. “Applying doesn’t mean you’ll get it,” he said. “We’ve tried for grants before and got turned down.” The board approved the motion to move forward in seeking out grant funding.
EMAILS AND COMMUNICATION
The discussion of email use was added to the agenda by Laplante, and it was board member Kellie Determan who came up with a solution of creating Gmail accounts for the board.
Previously there was no contact information other than the phone number for the Parks Department on the website. Prior to Wednesday’s meeting Laplante had complained in an email to fellow board members that Chairperson Hutchins did not use email. Hutchins subsequently had one set up one and began learning to use it. Determan will be taking the step forward to create specific board emails for everyone, which will be added to the Township Parks website.
Discussion also helped to clarify the procedure for communication among board members, with Brinker stating the emails from one board member to all others resulting in discussion could be considered a violation of the Open Meetings Act, and that items for discussion should be put on the agenda and discussed at the public meetings.
Also discussed was what more could be done to improve communication and outreach online, including doing more on social media to promote parks, programs, and activities. Though there was no specific vote, it was determined that the football program would be able to set up a Facebook page or group, and that privacy of the youth was not an issue because parents signed releases as part of their registration for the program. Brinker also will add a page to the website about the program.
Arguing the importance of being accessible and promoting the parks online, Laplante raised the suggestion of picking a new Chairperson to be the face of the board to the public. Hutchins has been chair for at least 15 years, and no one on the board, or the director, knew what the bylaws stated on the procedure to change it. Instead of a motion to vote on new leadership, the motion was made (and approved) to review the bylaws and discuss at the next meeting.
Also discussed at the meeting was Brinker’s decision to terminate a contract between the Holly Township Parks Board and the Village of Holly for the management of the Karl Richter Community Center (KRCC).
The board did not vote on the termination as Brinker is presumably within rights as the Director to make the decision. Resident Tony Engelberg, who initially ran for the Parks Board as a write-in candidate in November but withdrew to support Laplante, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request during public comment at Wednesday’s meeting requesting the documentation verifying that this decision could be made without board input.
After the meeting, Brinker was asked to explain her reasoning. “I ended the contract because the amount of time the KRCC board now requires of their director is more than I am able to give with my full time job with the parks. Plus I felt I have gotten the center as far as I can take it and I feel they are ready to take the next step and move it further along in the process of creating more community activities. The Parks will stay involved hosting some classes there as well as collaborating where it is advantageous for both areas,” she said.
Brinker gave notice at the Dec. 11, 2018 KRCC Advisory Board meeting, and is required by contract to management of the center through Feb. 11, 2019. She has agreed to continue longer if necessary while the KRCC Board finds a replacement or comes up with a different management plan.
WAVE OF CHANGES
The discussions Wednesday are part of a wave of changes happening at the board.
For years it was hard to find anyone to fill seats on the Holly Township Parks Board, but in the community of 11,000 residents, times have changed. Social media in particular has meant that more people are privy to discussions, rumors, and complaints. It’s a limelight that has been impacting boards and commissions across the county as people who were once quiet volunteers find themselves under scrutiny as public figures. It’s also been inspiring others to get more involved in how decisions in communities are being made, and putting the spotlight on processes that may have gotten relaxed over the years.
The Nov. 6 election saw a race between four candidates for one seat – Laplante, who had enough signatures to make it on the ballot, and write in candidates Engelberg, Joan Warner, and Liam Feeney. In the course of campaigning Engelberg stepped back from running to endorse Laplante. Both Engelberg and Feeney attended Wednesday and continue to push for more public information and new programming ideas.
Among the issues raised during the election was that a former employee – the stepson of Chairperson Hutchins – publicly accused his stepfather of having checks issued in his name for work he said did not perform, and cashing them without permission. Michigan State Police spokesperson Lt. Mike Shaw told Oakland County Times that “The report was closed as unfounded.” However, the investigation prompted the board to instill tighter controls over check issuance, and a requirement that if any employee wants someone else to pick up a check for them they must put it in writing.
Some procedures have been improved as a result of residents’ concerns. One such change has been to public comment. Previously at board meetings, members of the public were not given opportunity to speak until the end of the meeting. This meant that if they had questions or concerns about a topic on the agenda, those could not be heard until after the vote had already happened. Because of Engelberg’s complaint a public comment period was added to the beginning of the meetings, while also keeping the comment period at the end.
Concerns over agenda packets are still being worked out. At the December meeting, board members were asked to vote on an auditing firm, without having the proposals included in the agenda packet before the meeting. Brinker said more information would be available in advance moving forward.
The website has been updated in recent weeks to include information such as the meeting schedules, agendas, and names of board members. There are still areas that need to be updated, including the events page.
Holly Township Supervisor George Kullis has also arranged to have Parks Board meetings recorded. A couple of attempts at Facebook Live streaming proved problematic due to the lack of reception at the Sorensen Nature Center where the meetings are held, and no one was available to record Wednesday’s meeting. There is hope though, as Kullis hopes to use money from the cable fund, paid for by Comcast, to pay for equipment. Holly Township and the Village of Holly – both of which are separate entities from the Holly Township Parks Board – do stream meetings. The intent is there, it is just a matter of getting the technology right.
The Holly Parks Board is an independent body that is elected to oversee a budget of $140,000 that comes mainly from a specific millage plus revenue from programming.
There are two parks under the Holly Parks care – Sorensen Park and Holly Township Beach. Other parks in the Village of Holly are funded through Village taxes and overseen by the Village government.
The only way the Township itself and the Township Parks Boards are legally required by state statute to overlap is that the Township Board must approve the Parks Board Budget.
For years this was done in a rather routine way, without public concern or questions. But the most recent budget was presented to the Township Board at the latest possible date, and no one from the Parks department or board was there to answer questions.
In a July 18, 2018 document listing answers to questions presented at the preceding meeting, the reason given was “Unfortunately, the wrong date had been put on the Chairs calendar and the director had dislocated her knee that afternoon.”
Because the Township was pressured into approving the budget without being able to question it, the Township Board changed their policies and now requires that budgeting steps be conducted earlier so that there is time to review, discuss, and revise the budget if necessary.
“This is the situation,” Kullis said. “We’ve had many years of things going along from one year to the next, with board members who are volunteers from the community who were never really given the information they need to understand everything that goes into running a board. Everyone has good intentions. There isn’t any corruption. But what there is, is a need to look over procedures and get the board educated about their roles and responsibilities.”
The Parks Board has approved an auditor who is currently going through the records to check the numbers as well as the financial procedures. When the audit is complete it will be presented to the board and the public.
PROGRAMS AND A POSITIVE FUTURE
Apart from all of the administrative aspects, the public is most familiar with the beautiful public spaces and the fun programs put on by Holly Township Parks.
A newly formed senior group now meets Thursdays at 1pm at the Karl Richter Community Center. The Jr. Bronchoes football program is helping kids learn the value of playing together as a team. And there are events for all ages. Sorensen Park is home to the nature center and hiking trails, as well as softball fields and a play area for kids.
The board also took time Wednesday to discuss Holly Township Beach and share ideas for how to make it an even more exciting local attraction, and to consider how best to keep it affordable and maintained. The beach offers free admission on July 4, and may add themed days to the 2019 season.
Brinker, who has been with Holly Township Parks for almost 30 years, has been surprised by some of the accusations but is also excited about the new ideas. “I love this community,” she said. “I’ve been out at different places and run into people who say ‘hey, I remember you from Holly.’ I’ve seen the kids grow up… We are all here to work together for the kids, and the seniors, and the community.”
As public discourse continues to refine Holly Township Parks, it is an opportunity for the community to be involved and to get to know what the parks and programs have to offer.
Note: This story has been updated with clarifications to the candidates for election, and to include Engelberg’s withdrawal from the election to endorse Laplante. It has also been updated to reflect the specific grant the board voted to apply for, and the months that the Program Director works.
Learn more at http://hollyparks.org