TRAVERSE CITY — A former mayor filed suit in an effort to force a citywide vote on how city’s parkland is used.
Traverse City’s deal with the Traverse City Film Festival to develop the former Con Foster Museum into a movie theater prompted the parkland use lawsuit, as did a previous deal the city struck with the Michigan Department of Transportation over parkland on Division Street.
Attorney Grant Parsons and his client, Fred Nelson, allege city commissioners used extra-legal means to evade a city charter provision that requires a 3/5 vote of residents to dispose of city parkland.
Parsons alleges commissioners violated the charter by giving the Film Festival an exclusive right to manage the Con Foster building at Clinch Park for 10 years. He wants a circuit court judge to order a public vote.
He also wants a judge to rule that the city can’t give parkland to MDOT to improve Division Street because a 2012 vote fell just short of the required 60 percent.
“The city government is just not playing by the rules,” Parsons said. “These parks are dedicated and were given special protection and that special protection is being eroded and Clinch Park is at the crux of it. Everybody wants a piece of Clinch Park.”
City Attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht said she hasn’t received a copy of the lawsuit and declined comment.
Deb Lake, executive director of the Film Festival, also declined to comment until she receives a copy of the lawsuit.
Parsons and Nelson are both Film Festival boosters. Their effort doesn’t aim to hurt the Film Festival; instead they said they took the step to force city officials to follow to a required process.
“I can’t even imagine the Film Festival losing that vote,” Parsons said.
The city commission agreed in April to a proposal from Film Festival officials to enter into a 10-year management agreement to operate the vacant Con Foster building as a movie theater. The Film Festival wanted to fast-track the $1 million renovation to open in time for its summer festival. Commissioners left details of construction and the agreement up to city staffers.
City commissioners never read the agreement until a September Record-Eagle report pointed out the agreement called for a movie marquee, vestibule, and painted yellow brick road through portions of Clinch Park, all items commissioners had not approved.
“All of a sudden the whole Your Bay, Your Say planning and committee and consultant process goes by the wayside,” Parsons said. “The city attorney and a city staffer sign off on it, and the city commission doesn’t even know what’s in it.”
Parsons ran into Nelson on a street corner and “he asked me what I was going to do about it,” Parsons said. Nelson paid him $1 to file suit.
“I just think it should be darn difficult to sell park property,” Nelson said. “To delegate what is a public decision to staff is just kind of skating around it.”
Trible-Laucht told commissioners in a Sept. 17 letter that because the city will continue to own the property, it will not be conveyed or disposed of in any manner and does not require a vote of the people.
Nelson acknowledged the city hadn’t sold the property, but said the public can’t use it, either.
“Functionally, it’s the same thing,” he said.