ELK RAPIDS — Ongoing tension between Elk Rapids Village Council President Jim Janisse and some board officials continued during a recent building committee meeting, where insults and name-calling were captured in a cellphone recording.
On the recording — made with Janisse’s knowledge — the village president uses profane language to describe one library board member, insults several others, singles out a local resident and frequent public commenter.
“They look like asses,” Janisse said, of library board members. “They cannot get their sh — together.”
“Dick looks like an angry bully,” Janisse added. “Liz is a bi--- from hell, Karen hears one thing and just stops, Barb is trying to do X, Y and Z but she’s not able to fulfill it — all of these things — and yet, collectively, everybody ends up saying, ‘Oh we still want to build the library.’ So, that’s what I hear.”
Dick Hults, Liz Atkinson, Karen Simpson and Barb Johnson are members of the Elk Rapids District Library Board.
Janisse, who posted a letter to the village’s website apologizing for his comments and offering an explanation, said the coarse language didn’t originate with him.
By using it verbatim, he said he was seeking to inform building committee members and village officials of what was being said in the community by others.
“I used the language I heard,” Janisse said. “What gets lost in this is what was accomplished at that meeting. The library board and the village are now a lot closer to a lease agreement, which is what we set out to accomplish.”
The library board has been at the center of a variety of controversies in recent months, and has grappled with transparency issues, legal expenditures, management of a $1.7 million capital campaign for an expansion project and deed restrictions on the current building lease between the library and the village.
The village president’s recorded comments come on the heels of the council’s unanimous approval Feb. 1, of an ethics ordinance, which has been on the meeting agenda for nearly two years.
Standards of conduct included in the eight-page document state that the village expects trustees, employees and commission members to, “treat each other and those they serve with respect, integrity, professionalism, and fairness; and to understand that even the appearance of impropriety is damaging to the reputation of the Village.”
Janisse said he did not violate the new ordinance because he told those present at the meeting — outgoing Village Manager Bill Cooper, Village Manager Bryan Gruesbeck, Hults and library board member Chuck Schuler — he was simply repeated what he’d heard others say.
Hults, who chairs the board’s building committee, said he made the recording in order to share it with Atkinson, who showed up at village offices to attend the Feb. 9 in-person meeting, but was barred by Janisse from attending.
“This strong arm approach, I’ve grown weary of it,” Atkinson said, of her reaction to listening to the recording. “His leadership skills are sorely lacking.”
After the recording was widely circulated among village residents and was brought up by three people during public comment at the council’s Feb. 16 meeting, Janisse posted the letter to the village’s website apologizing for his “colorful” language.
“When listening to the recording that was taken at the discussion, after the colorful language was used, I stated, ‘That’s what I hear,’” the letter signed by Janisse states. “I believed at that point I clarified the language with this statement. I felt it was important to be absolutely frank and honest with Chuck and Dick about what I have been told from other community members as the Village President, emphasizing the need for change in the boards’ behavior with each other.”
None of the comments were meant as personal attacks, Janisse said.
Janisse previously said the building committee meeting was for committee members and village representatives only, Atkinson was not on the committee, and therefore not invited to attend the meeting.
Atkinson, who was appointed to the library board by Milton Township trustees, said she was attending at the behest of her fellow township trustees — an assignment Milton Township Supervisor Lon Bargy confirmed.
“We asked her, we want to know what’s going on and by law, that was a public meeting,” Bargy said.
On the recording Janisse can be heard saying he thinks Milton Township trustees were ready to tell Atkinson to “shut the hell up” and “get bent,” a characterization Bargy, who has been supervisor for 36 years, took exception to.
“We’re elated with her work on the library board, which is what I told Jim,” Bargy said. “We just reappointed her and the vote was unanimous.”
Janisse spoke about local resident Diane Richter, who chaired the parks and recreation commission and also singled out a Record-Eagle reporter.
Of Richter, known for her access to documents and research of local government, Janisse said he wanted her inquiries checked for accuracy and shut down — “she does dig and a blind squirrel can find a nut.”
Richter, who runs a tennis clinic in the summer and serves on Green ER, a local volunteer organization focused on environmental issues, said she was taken aback when she listened to the recording.
“I’m in my 70s and this feels like bullying,” Richter said, of Janisse’s comments on her civic activities. “It’s frustrating for him that I can put my finger on all these documents.”
Janisse chided Hults for speaking on the record to a Record-Eagle reporter about library controversies, Hults called the reporter “a heat-seeking missile” and Janisse said the Record-Eagle should only be given good news.
“You don’t let the Record-Eagle in unless it’s positive,” Janisse said on the recording.
Overshadowed by a few minutes of insults on the hour-long recording, are two issues central to the library’s planned expansion: Whether a new lease can be successfully negotiated and whether the capital campaign can raise the more than $5 million Hults predicted the project will require.
Hults agreed the village and the library board’s building committee were closer to an agreement after the meeting than they were at the beginning.
In the future, Hults and Atkinson said, building committee meetings would be posted, open to the public and minutes would be taken.