County Board Tackles “Fracking” Concerns

Also: Commissioners honor dispatchers, lobby for PPT

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (April 4, 2012): Much of the county board’s recent meeting was devoted to an item not on their agenda – concerns about proposed oil and gas drilling in the Saline area using a technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

Victoria Powell, Leah Gunn

Victoria Powell, who spoke during public commentary to oppose oil and gas drilling using the technique called "fracking," talks with commissioner Leah Gunn at the April 4, 2012 Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

Several residents spoke on the topic during public commentary, citing concerns over health, well contamination, property devaluation, and damaged roads caused by company tanker trucks, among other effects. They noted that state regulators aren’t providing adequate oversight or protection, and urged the board to take action.

Speakers included Mitch Rohde, CEO of Saline-based Quantum Signal and founder of “,” which has mobilized against drilling in this area by Paxton Resources, a company based in Gaylord, Mich. The company recently notified the county that it has filed an application with the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality for permission to drill an exploratory oil and natural gas well in Saline Township. [.pdf of notification letter]

Several commissioners thanked the speakers for coming and expressed their own intent to look into the issue, though it’s not clear what action can be taken at the county level. An April 19 working session will focus on the topic. That meeting begins at 6 p.m. at the county administration building, 220 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor.

In other items at the April 4 meeting, commissioners honored county dispatchers and got an update on cleanup from the March 15 tornado that touched down in the Dexter area. Marc Breckenridge, the county’s director of emergency management and homeland security, gave an estimate of $5 million in damages to private homes and property, and another $2 million in response costs – expenses incurred from the road commission, county workers, the sheriff’s office and others. The county intends to apply to the state for help in covering some of these costs.

Funding controlled by the state was key to another item on the April 4 agenda: A resolution urging state legislators not to eliminate the personal property tax, unless 100% replacement revenues are guaranteed. More than $40 million in PPT revenues are received by local units of government within Washtenaw County. Leah Gunn, who wrote the resolution, expressed skepticism that legislators would pay attention to the county’s concerns, but said it would at least send the message: ”Don’t mess with us.”

Two action items were related to the county’s criminal justice system. The board approved the appointment of Elisha V. Fink as magistrate of the 14A District Court. She’s filling a vacant part-time position previously held by Camille Horne, who left the job at the end of 2011. Commissioners also gave initial approval to hire Nimish Ganatra as an assistant prosecuting attorney at a salary of $81,690. The vacancy opened in December, following an employee retirement. The hire requires board approval because the salary is above the $69,038 midpoint of an authorized range. While several commissioners praised the hire and the office of county prosecuting attorney Brian Mackie, Wes Prater cast a dissenting vote. Citing ongoing budget challenges, he objected to hiring someone at an above-midpoint level.

Several other items were handled during the meeting, including: (1) final approval for the county to become a charter member of the Washtenaw Health Initiative, at an annual cost of $10,000; (2) initial approval to accept federal grants for the county’s weatherization program for low-income residents; and (3) acceptance of federal grants for local workforce development programs.

During public commentary, Douglas Smith talked about a lawsuit he’s filed against the county over a denial of his Freedom of Information Act request. The FOIA related to a surveillance video of an incident in Ypsilanti Township involving the theft of $20 from a court employee’s car – Smith alleges the money was taken by a high-level staffer with the sheriff’s office. Smith has spoken about this issue at previous board meetings, asking the board to intervene.

“Fracking” in Washtenaw County

Concerns about proposed oil and gas drilling in the Saline area using a technique known as “fracking” were raised by several speakers during public commentary at the April 4 meeting. Similar concerns had been voiced by commissioners at previous meetings, and the board plans to hold an April 19 working session on the topic.

“Fracking” in Washtenaw County: Public Commentary

Kurk Gleichman of Pittsfield Township told commissioners that a growing number of people have concerns about the practice of hydraulic fracturing, and are often discouraged by the influence that the oil and gas industry has on federal, state and sometimes local officials. Some communities have passed ordinances that ban the practice, he noted. Initially, local officials believed that they couldn’t pass laws that are stronger than state law, he said, but such laws can be instituted for the safety and security of residents. He reported that several groups in the community have formed, including and Ban Michigan Fracking. They support a ban on fracking, as well as a ban on waste generated from the practice, which is also a problem.

Victoria Powell, an Adrian resident, highlighted the impact of oil and gas drilling on the water supply. No one is addressing the issue of water depravation and contamination, she said, and it’s already a critical issue. She applauded the recent unanimous vote by the county road commission to reject drilling on property it owns in Saline Township.

Powell held up a map of Michigan that showed all the sites of existing underground storage tanks that are leaking. [The state Dept. of Environmental Quality provides an online searchable database to identify the location of leaking underground tanks. For example, a search for such sites in Ann Arbor yielded a list of 58 locations.] Last year, Jackson County – west of and adjacent to Washtenaw County – was the top crude oil-producing county in Michigan, Powell said. None of it is being used domestically, she contended. Many of the 42 wells in that county are near wetlands, but the DEQ says that drilling there is acceptable, Power reported.

Powell also spoke during a second opportunity for public commentary later in the meeting. She said the DEQ is thriving because it gets revenue from the hundreds of drilling permits it issues. Hal Fitch – chief of the DEQ’s office of oil, gas and minerals – is the single person to decide whether permits are issued, she said. Environmental impact studies must be done before drilling can occur, but those studies are done by the oil and gas companies, Powell said. There are currently about 18,000 wells in the state and less than three dozen inspectors who are supposed to inspect each well twice a year. Powell said she didn’t see how they could do that. There have been successful ordinances passed in cities like Pittsburgh and Buffalo that protect communities. She noted that if a property owner signs a contract with an oil or gas company allowing mineral exploration, they give away control of their property. Some lenders require notification of that, she said, and if you don’t provide it, you might be considered in default of your mortgage.

Powell concluded by noting that a meeting was being held in the Jackson County town of Brooklyn the next evening, featuring Chris Grobbel of Grobbel Environmental, who also teaches at Michigan State University. She suggested that commissioners might want to ask him to come to one of their meetings, too.

Brent Bartson of Lodi Township said he came to ask for help. As a property owner, he felt threatened by the risk that oil companies were posing to his health and the community’s health. Four wells had been drilled in Saline Township that use an acidizing technique. It’s not technically fracking, but it’s “fracking in sheep’s clothing,” he said. Bartson asked the board to adopt a resolution similar to one recently approved by the Wayne County commission, which called for a statewide and national ban on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. It would send a strong message to the state and the rest of the community that Washtenaw County is environmentally conscientious and doesn’t want this kind of risk imposed on its citizens. He suggested that rights-based ordinances – like those enacted in New York and Pennsylvania – have withstood legal scrutiny in court, and that might be a good place to start, he said.

Mitch Rohde identified himself as CEO of Saline-based Quantum Signal, which he said has added more than 40 jobs over the past decade. He’s also founder of “,” which has mobilized against drilling in this area by Paxton Resources, a company based in Gaylord, Mich.

Rohde said he was approached in October about the possibility of licensing the mineral rights on his property. After looking into it, he said what he found was frightening: drilling that resulted in well contamination and property devaluation, and damaged roads caused by company tanker trucks, among other effects. He noted that there is insufficient state regulation and oversight of these activities – he has no confidence in the DEQ. He urged the board to take action not just symbolically, but to enact serious measures that have worked in other communities.

“Fracking” in Washtenaw County: Board Discussion

There was no agenda item related to this topic, but several commissioners responded to the public commentary.

Yousef Rabhi began by thanking the residents for coming and speaking out about their concerns. He called it one of the most important issues facing this community, and noted that there’s already been an example of industrial contamination – the 1,4 dioxane contamination of underground aquifers caused by the former Gelman Sciences manufacturing plant in Scio Township. Court-ordered cleanup of that contamination has been going on for years. It’s important to be aware of current threats to property rights and health, he said, but also to be aware of future threats – in some cases, the impact of contaminants might not be known for many years.

Yousef Rabhi

Commissioner Yousef Rabhi pointed out that the county has received a communication from Paxton Resources indicating its intent to drill in Saline Township.

Rabhi wanted the speakers to know that they have a lot of support among commissioners. It’s important to take a stand against these companies, he said, though it seems like the state is on the side of the industry, and is not protecting citizens. He said that he and others have met with county staff to talk about what can be done, and there are a lot of hurdles to action. The consensus is that at the county level, there’s nothing meaningful that can be done, he said.

Rabhi pointed out that Paxton Resources has notified the county that it has filed an application with the MDEQ to drill an exploratory oil and natural gas well in Saline Township. [.pdf of notification letter] Dialogue still needs to occur, he said, and he reported that the board plans to hold an April 19 working session on the issue. [Rabhi is chair of the working sessions.]

Barbara Bergman echoed Rabhi’s comments, and added that she’s concerned for her children and grandchildren. The nation’s willingness to harm others because of its insatiable energy needs doesn’t make sense, she said.

Conan Smith noted that Wes Prater has prepared a resolution similar to one passed last year by the Wayne County board of commissioners, which called for a statewide and national ban on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. Smith said they could discuss the issue at the April 19 working session, then take up the resolution at a subsequent board meeting. The board will take whatever action it can, he added, and try to identify ways to make an actual impact.

Leah Gunn said that fresh water is one of the most precious resources, and when it’s polluted, “it’s over.”

Felicia Brabec noted that the speakers during public commentary are on the “front lines” of this issue, and have a better understanding than commissioners about what’s happening in their community related to fracking. She expressed interest in bringing some of the speakers back to the podium to answer questions, but Rolland Sizemore Jr. – who was chairing the meeting – didn’t take that suggestion. He pointed out that they’d be having more discussion at the April 19 working session, and asked that elected officials from other local units of government in the county be invited to attend.

Noting that the drilling was focused on her district, Alicia Ping said it seemed like any action the board took would have less impact than action at the city or township level, but commissioners need to continue looking into it.

Prater observed that state regulations for drilling are set out in a document that’s only three pages long. The board can pressure Lansing to make oil and gas companies step up and do inspections. The National Association of Counties (NACO) has started looking into the issue, he said, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is doing a study that will be released in 2014. “Well, we can’t wait until 2014,” Prater said. At the very least, the county needs to ensure that inspections are happening, he concluded, even though ”they certainly don’t have much to enforce.”

Rabhi criticized the state’s office of oil, gas and minerals, which is responsible for issuing drilling permits. The office is funded based on how much oil and gas is extracted – why should you trust people who are funded this way? It’s very alarming and adds to the reasons why citizens must be vigilant, he said.

Conan Smith defended DEQ staff, saying that he knew several state regulators and they care about the environment. He said the agency is grossly underfunded. There’s no question that there’s a flaw in the funding mechanism, but he would hate to impugn their integrity as public servants for something that’s beyond their control.

Honoring County Dispatchers

At their March 21 meeting, commissioners had authorized up to $500,000 from capital reserves to fund disaster relief and assistance to residents impacted by the March 15 tornado in the Dexter area. At the April 4 meeting, a resolution was on the agenda tangentially related to that disaster, honoring Washtenaw County dispatchers and declaring the week of April 8-14 as National Public Safety Telecommunicator Week in Washtenaw County.

Jerry Clayton, Brian Mackie, county dispatchers

Sheriff Jerry Clayton, left, and Washtenaw County prosecuting attorney Brian Mackie talk with three dispatch employees – Sandy Petrimoulx, Rochelle Noonan and Sarah Taylor – who were on hand to receive a resolution honoring the work of dispatchers in the county.

Although the board passes a similar resolution annually at this time of year, the recent disaster response was highlighted during a presentation to the board by Marc Breckenridge, the county’s director of emergency management and homeland security. Commissioners asked Breckenridge to begin by giving an update on conditions in that part of the county.

The F3 tornado had destroyed 13 homes, seriously damaged several more, and caused minor damage to hundreds of homes and property, Breckenridge said. Crews from the county road commission and DTE were especially critical in getting the community back to normal, he said. Fire service and other emergency personnel had come together quickly and accounted for everyone – there were no serious injuries or deaths. The outdoor warning sirens and media coverage of the tornado were helpful in getting the word out to people so that they could take cover, he said.

Now, the focus has shifted to long-term recovery and assessing damage, Breckenridge said. He estimated that there are about $5 million in damages to private homes and property, and another $2 million in response costs – expenses incurred from the road commission, county workers, the sheriff’s office and others.

Yousef Rabhi asked where the funds would come from to pay for the $2 million in response costs. The county has committed up to $500,000 and the road commission is paying another $250,000, he noted. What are the other sources?

Initially, that state had indicated that no funds were available under Section 19 of the Michigan Emergency Management Act, Breckenridge said. However, state Rep. Mark Ouimet – whose district includes the Dexter area – had subsequently identified a line item of about $519,000 in state funds that had been set aside to help pay for emergency response at the local level. The funds are typically capped at $30,000 per unit of government, Breckenridge said.

Barbara Bergman noted that they might have identified that money, but wondered how it would be “wrested” out of Lansing. She observed that this is the reason people pay taxes – so that governments can respond to emergencies. She asked the people who opposed paying taxes to think about that.

The process has started to collect information and make a formal request for state funds, Breckenridge said. It’s a only little bit, he added, but they’ll take it. As an example, he noted that the Huron-Clinton Metroparks has submitted $350,000 for damage to its golf course.

County administrator Verna McDaniel reported that so far, only about $78,000 has been spent out of the $500,000 allocated last month by commissioners. She assured them that the staff will be very prudent and account for every dime that’s spent.

Bergman asked Breckenridge whether insurance companies are “ducking” their  obligations. He replied that he’s seen a lot of activity by insurance adjusters in the area, and insurance companies have engaged many of the construction crews that are working in the area.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. praised Breckenridge’s work, prompting Breckenridge to reply that it’s not a one-man effort. A lot of others did heavy lifting, he said. Sizemore also thanked sheriff Jerry Clayton, who attended the April 4 meeting in uniform. Sizemore alluded to Clayton’s work in consolidating dispatch operations between the county and the city of Ann Arbor. [The county board had approved the dispatch consolidation at its Jan. 18, 2012 meeting. The proposal had previously been authorized by the Ann Arbor city council on Dec. 5, 2011. For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor, Washtenaw: Joint 911 Dispatch?"]

Breckenridge then introduced three employees of the county’s dispatch operations: Sarah Taylor, dispatch operations coordinator; Rochelle Noonan, a new dispatch operations coordinator; and Sandy Petrimoulx, communications operator. Breckenridge noted that dispatchers on duty during the March 15 storm fielded 821 incoming calls between 5-9 p.m. One dispatcher handled about one per minute for a period, which Breckenridge described as a shocking number. It was outstanding performance from the crew, he said. “We’re very proud of them.”

Board chair Conan Smith read the resolution honoring the county’s dispatchers and declaring the week of April 8-14 as National Public Safety Telecommunicator Week in Washtenaw County. Commissioners gave the dispatchers a round of applause.

McDaniel stepped forward and read another resolution recognizing volunteers in the county, and declaring the week of April 15-21, 2012 as National Volunteer Week.

Message to Lansing: Don’t Cut Revenues

Commissioners considered a resolution at their April 4 meeting that asked state legislators to halt any bills that would eliminate the state’s personal property tax. More than $40 million in PPT revenues are received by local units of government within Washtenaw County.

The resolution calls the potential loss of PPT revenue “devastating,” and states that such a loss would ”severely reduce the level of services by the local governments, including but not limited to public safety, transportation, libraries, schools, and local infrastructure.” [.pdf of initial resolution]

Message to Lansing: Don’t Cut Revenues – Board Discussion

Alicia Ping began the discussion by proposing an amendment that would specify not eliminating the PPT unless there is 100% replacement of those PPT revenues. She said she didn’t object to eliminating the PPT per se, but wanted to ensure that the revenues were replaced if that tax were eliminated. It was considered a friendly amendment.

Yousef Rabhi said that the 100% revenue replacement shouldn’t rely on the whims of state legislators. Local units of government need to be give options to raise their own revenues, he said. They shouldn’t have to rely on decisions made in Lansing, like those related to revenue-sharing, which has been chronically uncertain.

Leah Gunn noted that there’s been talk in the past about pushing for options as Rabhi suggested – like getting the ability to tax football tickets, for example – but it never goes anywhere. She said their resolution should simply ask for 100% revenue replacement.

Rabhi then suggested adding the word “guarantee,” which was also taken as a friendly amendment.

Wes Prater wondered how the amount of revenue replacement would be determined. Gunn replied that it would be based on the PPT revenues currently received, but noted that the issue “probably isn’t going to go anywhere.” The resolution is simply saying to state legislators “Don’t mess with us,” she said.

Outcome: The resolution was approved as amended, with Dan Smith abstaining from the vote. Rob Turner was absent.

14A District Court Magistrate

A resolution to appoint Elisha V. Fink as magistrate of the 14A District Court was on the April 4 county board agenda. Fink is filling a vacant part-time position previously held by Camille Horne, who left the job at the end of 2011.

Kirk Tabbey, Elisha Fink

14A-2 District Court judge Kirk Tabbey and Elisha Fink, who was appointed magistrate for the 14A District Court by the county board.

The 14A District Court serves all of Washtenaw County, with the exception of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Township. (Ann Arbor is served by the 15th District Court. Ypsilanti Township cases are heard in the 14B District Court.)

Fink has served as managing attorney with Fink Law in Dexter. Her practice has focused on family law, but she also has experience in the areas of business law, criminal law, real estate law, and civil litigation in the local courts. She is a graduate of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School. [.pdf of Fink's resumé]

Both Fink and Kirk Tabbey, the judge who presides over the 14A-2 District Court in Ypsilanti, attended the April 4 meeting and were invited to the podium to address the board. Tabbey noted that Fink has been involved with the court for some time, and Fink said she was looking forward to the opportunity of working as magistrate.

Commissioner Rolland Sizemore Jr. asked whether Fink could keep the judges in line – he seemed to be joking. Conan Smith ventured that now Fink could fix his tickets, a comment which drew laughs from others in the room. Fink revealed that her son had come home the previous night with a ticket that will be dealt with in the 14A District Court, and she’d told him she wouldn’t even go with him to the courtroom – it was his responsibility.

Outcome: Elisha Fink was appointed as 14A District Court magistrate in a unanimous vote. Rob Turner was absent.

Washtenaw Health Initiative

A resolution giving final approval for the county to become a charter member of the Washtenaw Health Initiative (WHI) was on the April 4 agenda. The effort aims to expand health care coverage for the county’s low-income residents. The membership includes a $10,000 annual fee in both 2012 and 2013, which would be funded through the county’s office of community and economic development.

The board has been briefed on the initiative, most recently at a Feb. 16, 2012 working session. The plan is intended to help local health care providers handle an influx of an estimated 50,000 newly insured patients when federal health care reforms take effect in 2014. The goal is to develop a plan to provide better health care for the county’s low-income residents, the uninsured and people on Medicaid – prior to changes that will be mandated by the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

The WHI is a collaboration co-chaired by former county administrator Bob Guenzel and retired University of Michigan treasurer Norman Herbert. The effort is jointly sponsored by the UM Health System and Saint Joseph Mercy Health System, and facilitated by Marianne Udow-Phillips, director of the Center for Healthcare Research & Transformation – a joint venture of UM and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

Other partners involved in the project include the Washtenaw Health Plan, the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber of Commerce, Arbor Hospice, Catholic Social Services, Dawn Farm, Hope Clinic, Huron Valley Ambulance, Integrated Health Associates, Packard Health, Planned Parenthood of Mid and South Michigan, United Way of Washtenaw County, and the Women’s Center of Southeastern Michigan. A full list of partners is on the WHI’s website.

Organizers say they hope this initiative will become a model for other communities nationwide that are facing similar issues.

Washtenaw Health Initiative: Board Discussion

Alicia Ping had dissented on an initial vote taken at the board’s March 21 meeting, saying she preferred funds to go directly to services, not for administrative purposes. She again raised concerns before the final vote.

Alicia Ping, Wes Prater

County commissioners Alicia Ping and Wes Prater.

Ping asked if other members would also be paying $10,000. County administrator Verna McDaniel replied that some of the other members are paying, and that she’d get that information for commissioners. Yousef Rabhi reported that the two hospitals – UM and St. Joe’s – are each putting in $30,000 annually.

Barbara Bergman said the WHI is working hard to prepare for the impact of the Affordable Care Act, assuming its provisions are upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. There will be a major influx of new patients who are eligible for Medicaid, she noted.

Wes Prater asked what the funding will be used for. There seemed some uncertainty at this point. Representatives from WHI – including former county administrator Bob Guenzel and Ellen Rabinowitz, director of the Washtenaw Health Plan – had attended the March 21 meeting, as most board discussion on agenda items occurs at that time. But no one was on hand to field questions on April 4. Conan Smith ventured that the WHI is conducting research, and that’s likely where the money will be initially spent.

Prater then asked if the WHI had already been formed as a nonprofit. Bergman said it’s not set up as a charitable organization – it’s a collaborative. Leah Gunn then called the question, a procedural move to end discussion.

Peter Simms, deputy county clerk, began the roll call vote on the resolution by asking: “Commissioner Bergman, how do you feel about that?” The unusually informal query drew laughs from commissioners, with Bergman indicating that she felt supportive.

Outcome: On a 9-1 vote, the board gave final approval to become a charter WHI member, with dissent from Alicia Ping. Rob Turner was absent.

Workforce Development Funding

A resolution giving final approval to three items related to Washtenaw County’s administration of the Michigan Works workforce development program was on the April 4 agenda. The items received initial approval at the board’s March 21 meeting.

The board was asked to authorize acceptance of a $92,309 federal grant to operate a local Michigan Works service center. The primary location in Washtenaw County is the Career Transition Center at 301 W. Michigan Ave. (the KeyBank building) in Ypsilanti. Additional services are offered at the Harriet Street Service Center at 304 Harriet St. in Ypsilanti.

Another $16,000 federal grant would fund ongoing professional and partnership development of the local Michigan Works operation.

The third item asked commissioners to ratify a mandatory 2012 “system plan” for the local Michigan Works office. The plan provides annual documentation of local administrative policies and procedures for the employment and training programs, as well as for other documentation required in order to receive funding as a workforce development agency. [Link to .pdf of the complete system plan for 2012][Link to .pdf of required grievance procedure documentation]

There was no board discussion on these items.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to give final approval to the workforce development items. Rob Turner was absent.

Assistant Prosecutor Hiring & Salary

Commissioners were asked to give initial approval to hiring an assistant prosecuting attorney at a salary of $81,690. The vacancy opened in December, following an employee retirement. The hire requires board approval because the salary is above the $69,038 midpoint of an authorized range ($68,074 to $96,565). Because of furlough days negotiated as part of the recent collective bargaining agreements, his salary will be adjusted down by 3.846% to $78,548.

Nimish Ganatra

Nimish Ganatra, standing, talks with Marc Breckenridge, the county's director of emergency management and homeland security. An agenda item related to Ganatra's hiring as assistant county prosecutor was on the April 4 agenda.

The candidate for the position is Nimish Ganatra, who currently serves as assistant prosecutor for Jackson County, and previously was an assistant prosecutor with the Washtenaw County prosecutor’s office from 2001-2009. He is a graduate of Ann Arbor Pioneer High School, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University Law School. [.pdf of Ganatra's resumé]

Brian Mackie, the county’s prosecuting attorney, praised Ganatra, highlighting an award he’d won for prosecuting domestic violence cases as an assistant district attorney in Worchester County, Mass. Mackie also noted that his office had recently lost two long-time employees: Don Ray, who retired last year after more than 30 years with the county; and Joe Burke, who was appointed earlier this year by the governor to serve a judicial vacancy in the 15th District Court.

Mackie said it was fortunate that Ganatra was willing to return to Washtenaw County.

Ganatra spoke briefly, saying it had been a pleasure to work for the county for nine years and that he looked forward to coming back.

Assistant Prosecutor Hiring & Salary: Board Discussion

Wes Prater said he couldn’t support the hire because the salary was well above midpoint. The county’s budgets won’t get any easier, he said, and there’s still the need to tighten spending.

Prater also said he was disappointed that Mackie didn’t replace Burke with an internal promotion. But Mackie pointed out that Burke’s position was filled with the internal promotion of Steven Hiller. Mackie also told commissioners that because the office is currently under-filling a senior assistant prosecutor post, there is an overall savings of $12,983. Another hire is being made at a base salary rate.

Several commissioners expressed strong support for the hiring of Ganatra. Dan Smith said he was very supportive of this hire and of the work done by the county prosecutor’s office. It’s sobering to hear about the cases that the office handles, Smith said, and he thanked Mackie for that work to keep the people of Washtenaw County safe.

Yousef Rabhi called Ganatra’s resumé impressive, and said that since Ganatra had previously worked for the county for nine years, in some ways it did feel like an internal promotion. Rolland Sizemore Jr. said he shared some of Prater’s concerns, but appreciated that Ganatra would be living in Washtenaw County. [Sizemore frequently stresses his view that it's important for county employees to be residents here as well.]

Outcome: The initial approval passed on a 9-1, with dissent from Wes Prater. Rob Turner was absent. A final vote is expected at the board’s April 18 meeting.

Weatherization Grants

Two items related to federal funding for Washtenaw County’s weatherization program for low-income residents were on the April 4 agenda for initial approval.

Commissioners were asked to authorize acceptance of $185,326 in federal funds for the weatherization program. The federal program was cut by 65% compared to 2011, but the state of Michigan is reallocating the previous year’s unspent funds as “carry-forwards” for 2012. In 2011, the county received $241,863 for this program.

According to a staff memo, the funding is expected to provide air leakage testing, health and safety evaluations, furnace assessments, refrigerator efficiency testing, post-inspection of the completed work, and consumer education services to 25 units. To qualify for the program, residents must have an income at or below 200% of federal poverty, which is about $44,700 for a family of four.

In a separate item, commissioners were asked to authorize acceptance of an additional $103,600 in funds redistributed to the county through the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA). According to a staff memo, this grant brings the total of ARRA weatherization funds received by the county to $4,867,138.

Weatherization Grants: Board Discussion

Wes Prater asked about the process for selecting recipients of the weatherization work. He said he hoped that priority was given to people who lived in the homes.

Aaron Kraft, who manages the program, said the applications are handled on a first come, first served basis. There’s a waiting list, and the grants being approved that night are already spoken for, he said. In response to another query, Kraft said that less than half of all contractors being used for the weatherization work of based in Washtenaw County.

In response to a follow-up question from a Chronicle reader (based on the Civic News Ticker report on this item), Kraft gave a more detailed breakdown of how the $185,326 will be allocated: Support and administrative costs covering client intake/assessment of need, project management ($63,136); energy audit inspections and quality assurance inspections ($8,820); labor and material costs to complete the recommended weatherization improvements ($106,196); and weatherization specific training funding ($7,174).

He said it’s likely that more than 25 homes will be weatherized using this funding.

Outcome: The two weatherization items received initial approval from commissioners. Rob Turner was absent. A final vote is expected on April 18.

Public Commentary

In addition to the anti-fracking public commentary reported above, two other people addressed the board.

Douglas Smith told commissioners that he had been forced to file a lawsuit against the county over a denial of his Freedom of Information Act request. The FOIA related to a surveillance video of an incident that he says involves Dieter Heren, police services commander with the sheriff’s office. Smith has spoken about this at three previous board meetings in 2011 – on Nov. 16Nov. 2 and Oct. 19 – asking for the board to intervene.

By way of background, Smith had filed a FOIA request with the county in October of 2011 regarding a March 2011 incident at Ypsilanti Township hall, where a court employee had reported that $20 was stolen out of her car in the parking lot. She had requested video surveillance footage, but instead of providing it to her, the building’s security officer had emailed the sheriff’s office, according to Smith. Smith contends that the incident prompted an internal investigation. His FOIA request for the video footage was denied on appeal to the county administrator. Smith’s lawsuit alleges violation of the state’s FOIA and seeks to compel the county to release the complete video.

Smith told commissioners that in February, he was finally shown a version of the video, but it had been altered. It showed Heren driving into the parking lot, Smith said, then getting out of his car and walking around the court employee’s vehicle. While part of the video was a continuous recording, he was told the section showing Heren at the car was taken by motion capture – that was given as an explanation for why there are frames missing from the video. However, Smith contends that the surveillance camera isn’t a motion capture camera.

Smith urged commissioners to not waste taxpayer money in defending this lawsuit, and to urge the county’s administration to settle it.

Thomas Partridge spoke twice. He called on the board to adopt a progressive democratic agenda, fitting of all religious-minded residents during this Easter season. He said he’d spoken at the Ann Arbor city council meeting earlier in the week, and had asked them “What would Jesus advocate?” Jesus would advocate for access to affordable housing, health care, and transportation for the neediest among us, Partridge said, including many in the middle class who are now struggling.

Later in the meeting, Partridge questioned why there’s been no investigation into deaths of people living in homes under the care of county health providers. He said commissioners should find out why no law enforcement agency has investigated these deaths.

Present: Barbara Bergman, Felicia Brabec, Leah Gunn, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith, Dan Smith, Ronnie Peterson

Absent: Rob Turner

Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. at the county administration building, 220 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor. The ways & means committee meets first, followed immediately by the regular board meeting. [confirm date] (Though the agenda states that the regular board meeting begins at 6:45 p.m., it usually starts much later – times vary depending on what’s on the agenda.) Public commentary is held at the beginning of each meeting, and no advance sign-up is required.

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  1. By Mark Koroi
    April 10, 2012 at 10:35 pm | permalink

    One wonders why the County continues to stall on the Douglas Smith FOIA request.

    If the video does not incriminate anyone, then let us all see it.

  2. By George Hammond
    April 13, 2012 at 3:30 pm | permalink

    Regarding fracking concerns, one thing that county residents can do is volunteer with their local watershed council. There is one for the Huron River [link] and the River Raisin [link].

    These groups are non-governmental not-for-profit organizations that work to protect the natural resources in their watersheds. They organize teams of volunteers to test for water quality in the streams and rivers in the county. They are one of the groups that is likely to detect surface water pollution first if it occurs.
    They always need more help, both volunteers to go out and take water samples, and of course funds too. Spring is a busy time for them. Both are organizing big sampling events right now, to collect the stream insects that are indicators of water quality and pollution in streams. Please help pass the word about these organizations.

  3. April 21, 2012 at 8:47 am | permalink

    I was at a recent Washtenaw County Commissioners meeting where one Irish Hills resident described what is going on in that region as an old vampire movie. Once you remove the garlic from the window sill and the vampires get a sense that you’re vulnerable they are in the room and sucking you dry. You will never get rid of them, they will control your soul… the oil men are the vampires. The DEQ is aiding them.

    Go to the Irish Hills area, google it, see it for yourself, and see what MIGHT happen to Washtenaw County if we’re not vigilent.

    Many of us are not opposed to oil development altogether. We just think that oil development in residential areas (Washtenaw County and Irish Hills qualify) is a dangerous thing. There are too many people living in these areas to allow this kind of industrial chemical processing.

    Learn more at, subscribe to the newsfeeds and write/email your local and state legislators.

  4. By Rod Johnson
    April 21, 2012 at 12:32 pm | permalink

    I’ve been through the Irish Hills in the last few months and don’t remember anything out of the ordinary. What should we be looking for? Derricks, bulldozers, vampires?