CADILLAC — A legal opinion came back to health officials that says a year’s worth of public hearings, debate and government action resulted in absolutely nothing for a pair of northern Michigan counties.
The District Health Department No. 10 Board learned Friday from its lawyer Catherine Jasinski that neither Kalkaska nor Manistee counties managed to make any changes to its sanitary code, despite a solid year of efforts.
Both counties had in recent months attempted to alter the existing point-of-sale inspection regulation — Kalkaska to bail out entirely and Manistee to eliminate some exemptions and extend the validity of inspections to three years.
The counties had to approve each others’ changes for them to take effect, along with officials from the eight other counties in the health district which don’t actually participate in the program. That’s simply the way district health departments work.
Therein lies the rub.
In September, Kalkaska County commissioners signed off on the changes Manistee County officials sought. But then in October, Manistee County commissioners refused to allow Kalkaska County to opt out of the program.
Not to be rejected and outdone, Kalkaska County commissioners decided during a special Oct. 31 session to rescind their first vote and change their minds to prevent Manistee County from altering the rules of the program. The consensus was if they couldn’t have their way, then neither could their adversaries.
The question then came down to whether Kalkaska County could renege or if the sanitary code was closed by the time the Halloween evening re-vote arrived, said Kevin Hughes, district health officer.
The district consulted legal counsel to sort out how the dust settled.
“There’s not a lot of case law about this,” Hughes told the Health Board Friday morning in Cadillac.
He received Jasinski’s written legal opinion Thursday evening, he said, and the lawyer’s interpretation was Kalkaska’s re-vote was valid. In the end, both counties successfully blocked each others’ efforts.
Jasinski wrote that governmental entities in Michigan adhere to general parliamentary procedures and legislative bodies have the right to reconsider or rescind previous actions. Because Kalkaska County commissioners changed their minds within a 45-day waiting period, the re-vote was perfectly legal.
“The amendment to the sanitary code was not yet ‘effective’ and not impossible to undo,” Jasinski wrote.
Hughes explained to Health Board members that means nothing changed at all.
“We are back to where we were at the start,” he said.
Both Kalkaska and Manistee counties must continue to enforce the existing point-of-sale inspection policy as written.
Hughes said perhaps commissioners from both counties could be approached again next year to address concerns that arose during the debate over point-of-sale septic and water well inspections. The health district could even broker a joint meeting to air out issues over which officials have come to loggerheads, he suggested.
Pauline Jaquish, both a Manistee County commissioner and member of the district’s Board of Health, said she’s confident residents of her county would prefer to have the amended rules in place.
Changes Manistee County commissioners voted to make to their point-of-sale program included the removal of several exemptions to the inspection policy, plus the extension of inspections’ validity from 2 to 3 years.
But commissioners there balked at the idea of Kalkaska County bowing out of the program altogether because the communities share a watershed connected by the Manistee River. What goes into the river upstream in Kalkaska — including human waste — eventually flows downstream to Manistee and then into Lake Michigan.
Patty Cox, Kalkaska County commissioner and member of the district’s Board of Health, said she doesn’t know whether it would be beneficial to meet with Manistee County commissioners to further discuss the matter.
“Personally, I think it’s done. I don’t like to beat a dead horse,” Cox said.
Seth and Carol Phillips, Kalkaska County residents and outspoken proponents of regulated septic inspections, attended the Friday morning meeting to talk about the ordeal. Carol Phillips said she wants officials to return to the table and continue to tackle the issue.
“Kalkaska still has a pending motion tabled to establish an advisory group to recommend improvements to our program, just like Manistee County did. Knowledgeable volunteer experts still stand ready to assist,” she said.
Carol Phillips asked the Health Board to encourage Kalkaska County officials to establish such a committee.
Laura de la Rambelje, acting director of the state Department of Health and Human Services’ division of local public health, said there continues to be a push for legislation to establish a statewide sanitary code to regulate septic systems, one that could include point-of-sale inspections as part of the rules.
Cox said she didn’t like that prospect one bit.
“I hate to have Lansing have more control over us than they do already,” Cox said.
De la Rambelje attended Friday’s meeting to discuss necessary public health services an individual county would be mandated to provide, should it withdraw from a health district. That route has been suggested by some Kalkaska County officials as a possible option to get their way on the point-of-sale inspection battle.
Health and environmental advocates point to concerns with faulty septic systems that include risks associated with fecal contamination of groundwater and surface water bodies. That type of pollution can lead to both human health concerns and environmental degradation.