ELK RAPIDS — A consultant hired to help break this small harbor town out of what one resident labeled a “negative funk” didn’t mince words recently when sharing recommendations with the local library board.
Namely, get a new one.
“This is a beautiful, wonderful community with ample opportunities and I see you guys tearing each other apart over some of the pettiest things I have ever seen in my life,” Doug Griffiths of the 13 Ways project told Elk Rapids District Library Board members.
“One of our first recommendations is that there needs to be a new board composition,” said Heather Thomson, a community planner who works with Griffiths. “Starting from scratch probably sounds like the most effective way to do this.”
This recommendation was one of seven delivered to the board by the Canada-based 13 Ways team, during a special meeting held Nov. 15 just prior to the library board’s monthly meeting.
The others include training to help set boundaries for board members, a needs assessment and a feasibility study to determine whether an expanded library is needed and if so, where it should be located and a hard look at decorum and behavior of board members.
President Tom Stephenson said he wasn’t sure an entirely new board was practical but agreed there was work to do.
“We need to get the confidence of the community back,” said Stephenson. “The discourse we’ve had the last couple years just had to stop. The community needs the library and we need to meet the needs of the community.”
Library Director Nannette Miller said she was impressed with the number of interviews conducted by the 13 Ways team — more than 100 throughout the village, covering topics beyond the library board — and was appreciative of the group’s apparent objectivity.
Longtime board member Barb Johnson, the immediate past president, attended the special meeting, said little and mailed a letter of resignation the next day.
“The direction the board is heading is not my vision for the library so I decided that it’s probably a good time for me to leave,” Johnson said.
Johnson was appointed to the board in 2015 by Milton Township and the letter of resignation she sent to ERDLB President Tom Stephenson, Milton Township Supervisor Lon Bargy and township trustees called out others for the dysfunction the board has experienced in recent years.
“It has become impossible to get anything accomplished with the dysfunctional members of the Board and the negative attitude of the Director,” Johnson stated in the letter. “Also, it is impossible to work with Board Members that find pleasure in bullying and making decisions based on personal desires rather than gathering other Board Members opinions.”
Under Johnson’s leadership the board grappled with repeated transparency issues, incurred accusations of financial irregularities in reporting the balance of a capital campaign expansion fund, were tasked with responding to a complaint made to the state’s Attorney General’s office and incurred excessive legal fees one board member characterized as a “self-inflicted wound.”
In August 2020 Johnson and another board member, Chuck Schuler, brought law enforcement with them to the library in a surprise suspension of the library director — later determined by the full board to be unfounded — without knowledge or approval of the personnel committee.
In response Milton and Elk Rapids township officials, as well as the library board, voted to ask Johnson for her resignation but she refused.
Michigan election law states the governor can remove a municipal officer if satisfied misconduct, willful neglect of duty or extortion, among other misdeeds, has occurred.
Library board officials in September 2020 discussed the possibility of requesting Johnson’s removal by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer but ultimately decided such a move would only fracture an already troubled board, records show.
Johnson has been a consistent supporter of an ambitious $5 million to $6 million plan to expand the Island House property and identified gaining the support of the Village Council and inspiring excitement among area residents for the project as her most valuable accomplishments.
Johnson said her passion was providing library space for children and teens.
Under Stephenson’s leadership public discourse has improved though fundraising for the expansion was suspended indefinitely after a long-forgotten deed to Island House was uncovered during a title search, calling ownership of the building into question.
For decades regional officials made decisions based on the Village of Elk Rapids owning the property but the deed showed ownership was shared by the village and Elk Rapids Township.
Library officials told approximately 450 donors to the campaign they could ask for their money back and so far the board has refunded about $600,000 to individuals and a foundation of the $1.5 million raised, records show.
These refunds jibe with Griffiths’ preliminary recommendation of putting the expansion project on hold until the underlying ownership and transparency issues could be resolved.
In the meantime, Elk Rapids Township trustees voted unanimously to hire Farrier Surveying Inc. of Kalkaska to help them unravel the ownership details. In October, Dean Farrier told trustees at a public meeting the 5 acre, triangularly-shaped lot the Island House sits on not only may be partially owned by the township, but includes part of the harbor.
The township sent this information to village officials Oct. 20. The village council is scheduled to discuss the issue at their Dec. 6 meeting, records show.
The library board’s next regular meeting is Dec. 9 at 5 p.m. Beginning at 7 p.m. the 13 Ways team will present its full community recommendations in a public meeting.
The Elk Rapids Chamber of Commerce is the project manager of the 13 Ways contract. The chamber, the Elk Rapids Downtown Development Agency, the village council all kicked in $10,000 and the project received a $10,000 seed grant from Rotary Charities, Kohl said.
Private donors provided the remaining funding of the $70,000 project, records show.
Griffiths said he understood replacing the entire library board would be a serious undertaking, but added it wasn’t a recommendation the team made lightly.
“One of our concerns is that it’s very easy to fall back into previous behaviors,” Griffiths said. “You can give it a shot with the (current board) ... I remind you again, if you don’t pick the right people and this all falls apart, I can’t say that we didn’t warn you.”