by Angie Asam-Staff Writer
Tensions have been rising between the Onaway City Commission and the group of citizens calling itself Citizens for a Safer Community since the talks surrounding the elimination of the Onaway Police Department began this winter. Things became even more strained when former chief Jim Gibson’s contract ended on June 1.
Since then city commission meetings have been less than civil. Monday night proved to be the worst as the commission had to call a recess because the public was disrupting the meeting well after the public comment period was over.
Following the public comment period at Monday’s meeting, as well as every other meeting the city commission conducts, it was time for commissioner reports. Each commissioner is then given a few minutes to talk about things they have heard about.
Commissioners Jessie Horrocks, Charles Abshagen and mayor Gary Wregglesworth each had their chance to speak. At that point the crowd continued to make comments as the commissioners tried to conduct business.
At that point, emotions appeared to boil over as commissioner Bernie Schmeltzer began to speak. “You know, I wish Mrs. (Connie) Gibson you’d shut your mouth. Public comment is over. You’re like a brat, a spoiled child. You’re comments are done. At least respect ours,” he said.
Schmeltzer then continued with his commissioner report and Ron Horrocks gave his report before things got even more tense.
“If that man told me to shut up in front of my husband he’d be dead. I am the one that spoke. You don’t tell a woman to shut her mouth. I don’t care whose wife it is, you don’t tell someone else’s wife to shut her mouth,” said Judy Shaloy, a member of the audience.
“I am the only one that was talking here? Really? Everybody else sat here and talked and he just narrows it in on me,” said Connie Gibson, from the audience.
Shaloy than continued, “He needs to apologize to her for telling her to shut her mouth. No man tells any woman to shut her mouth.” Mayor Wregglesworth reminded the crowd that public comment was over, as he had several times thus far to which she responded, “I don’t care.”
At this point commissioner Jessie Horrocks asked city manager Joe Hefele about having the sheriff’s department present at the meetings. Hefele told her he plans to have them at the next meeting. Jessie Horrocks then exited the meeting room and called deputies.
Wregglesworth then continued the meeting, asking Clayton Dunn, the Department of Public Works foreman to give his report.
Dunn began his report but was interrupted. Connie Gibson went out crying and Shaloy said “Hope you’re happy Bernie,” as the two exited the meeting room.
“You do owe her an apology. Bernie, look at me,” said Jim Gibson before more yelling disrupted the order again and Wregglesworth recessed the meeting for things to calm down so the city commission could conduct its business.
During the recess Jim Gibson continued and Schmeltzer indicated that if he did misspeak he would apologize. The meeting reconvened a few minutes later and Dunn was able to finish his report after Wregglesworth reminded the public that the public comment period was over and asked them to please keep their comments to themselves.
“I will apologize. I thought it was Connie, I really did, I thought it was Connie making the comments and I guess it was Judy Shaloy. It doesn’t matter, we sit here and I guess after a while, I should have been a little more reserved with my comments, but we sit here and get the negative comments and the negative comments, the half-truths. My advice would be to anyone that is thinking about running for city commission, you see why we have public comment limited. It’s not dual action. They have those comments. I try to respect their comments, I hope they would respect mine as well as the other commissioners. But again, I had addressed it to Connie, I thought it was her that was saying it, but that doesn’t excuse what I said. I do apologize,” said Schmeltzer.
THE MEETING then continued without incident and deputies from the Presque Isle County Sheriff’s Department arrived after they handled another call in the Onaway area.
For months the city commission and the Citizens for a Safer Community have been going back and forth on the issue of Onaway not having its own police department. At every city meeting the citizens speak their minds and the commission then continues the meeting.
MANY THINGS led up to Schmeltzer getting angry and the crowd becoming unruly.
Paula Paolino, who owns Paula’s Café in Indian River, was the first to speak under public comment. Paolino wanted to talk about the police department issue. “It’s hard for me to understand why any town would take away police or any board members or head of the flock would get away from the protection number one. It’s been a short time and it’s been proven already that it is a mistake. For as much as happened to your town since you’ve had no police,” she continued. “To give up your police, and you only had one, for better roads, what you’ve created now is the bad guys have good roads to vandalize, rape, murder, kill, whatever they want to do. You have left your town defenseless and wanting help. Now you are paying Rogers City (the county) to come in and help you,” said Paolino.
Next was Marma Beatty, who spoke about a variety of things including blaming Hefele for putting the city $2 million in debt, how the city taxpayers are now paying double for police service they should be receiving anyways through the sheriff’s department, new lights in the downtown leading to others in town being shut off.
Beatty then questioned if Schmeltzer’s and Ron Horrocks’ hiring of Mike Vogler, who serves as the city attorney, to represent them in an appeal of their recall was a conflict of interest.
Schmeltzer informed the public that he and Mr. Horrocks are paying Vogler with their own funds, no city funds.
“I would like to respond again to a couple of these points also because they have been made and made and made. Facts. New light bill, lights shut off on the sidestreets. There wasn’t additional light charges, Presque Isle Electric was neglecting to charge us for the big cobra heads, they caught it when the new lights went in. Those charges were going to be there. It wasn’t a result of the new lights,” said Hefele.
Hefele was interrupted by the public, “Let me finish here please. I am trying to correct the record here with the fallacies that you’re putting out. Lawsuit by a contractor, I can only assume we’re talking about something that happened 10 years ago. It was settled with grant dollars. There was no overrun, there is no lawsuit there, there was a large settlement that we used to prevent increases in sewer rates. Overruns on the water and sewer projects. That is 100 percent false. Both of those projects came in under budget and we were able to get a multitude of extras with those projects,” he said. Hefele continued answering questions that were raised by Beatty at Monday’s meeting and meetings in the past.
Lonnie Lenox than read a letter from Nate Richter, who was unable to attend the meeting. The letter concerned an attempted break-in at his house a few days prior. He wanted to know how the mayor felt since it was near his home. Later in the meeting Wregglesworth answered saying “A few years ago my wife’s purse was stolen from her vehicle, I know exactly how he feels.”
Next to speak was Jim DuBois, owner of the Onaway Speedway, who was upset with what he termed “$10,000 in damages” that had occurred at his speedway recently. Mayor Wregglesworth tried to explain to him that the speedway is not in the city limits anyways, thus wouldn’t have been protected by the city police. Things got a bit heated but DuBois said that before Onaway had no police he didn’t have as many problems. DuBois admitted he didn’t know how much the former chief did, what hours he worked or any of the other specifics.
Commissioner Jessie Horrocks also corrected another question that was raised during public comment as it was mentioned that Hefele doesn’t live in Onaway and thus likely goes home to a place where he has police protection. “Mr. Hefele lives in Millersburg, so he doesn’t go home to police protection, just to correct the record,” she said.
ONCE THE public comment, arguing and tension calmed down the commission moved on with regular business as they approved the vacation of an alley, authorized Hefele to work with engineering firm C2AE on a grant program for stormwater asset management, waived their first right of refusal on all four foreclosed properties being offered to the city by the county, paid the invoices and rescheduled its first meeting in September to Sept. 3 at 9 a.m.