County board addresses another BOA lawsuit

Craig Moorhead

The Caledonia Argus

Houston County commissioners went into closed session on Tuesday, May 16. Citing “pending litigation,” the board consulted with legal council prior to re-opening the meeting, then reached a consensus on how to proceed.

The court case pits the City of Houston against the county. At issue is a Board of Adjustment decision to grant a variance of 2280 feet for a feedlot to meet the required half-mile (2640 foot) setback from the corporate limit of the City of Houston, an identical variance to meet the required setback to a platted subdivision, a variance of 1650 feet to meet the required half-mile setback from a public park, and a variance of 907 feet to meet the required quarter-mile setback from an existing dwelling.

Those four variances (granted on October 27) would allow Cody Stuttgen of Houston Township to expand a 50.3 animal unit (AU) registered feedlot to 134 AU, somewhat less than the 200 AU limit which he applied for.

Commissioners decided to tell their land use attorney not to appeal an early court decision regarding the case. On April 20, district court judge Carmaine Sturino denied a motion from Houston County to dismiss the matter “because all parties were not properly notified within 30 days.” On a related note, Sturino granted a “Motion For Joiner” submitted by the City of Houston, naming Stuttgen as “a party to this action.” Sturino closed her memorandum on the decision with the following: “This court finds that Mr. Stuttgen can be joined to this new civil action and the case may proceed accordingly.”

New county assessor named

The board appointed Cynthia Cresswell-Hatleli as county assessor. Effective May 15, she will take on the remaining term of retired Houston County assessor Tom Dybing, which expires on Dec. 31, 2020. The appointment offers both continuity and nearly 18 years of experience in the Houston County Assessor’s Office, since Cresswell-Hatleli was tapped to serve as interim county assessor on March 28.

In other personnel news, Shane McCabe was offered the job of probationary highway department mechanic, contingent upon the successful completion of a background check. Arrick-Kruger said that the job opened up once again after the person who was offered the position on May 2 withdrew prior to their effective hire date. McCabe is set to begin on June 12.

Grant application approved

Commissioners also approved a two year grant agreement for the Sheriff’s Office to continue to participate in the Towards Zero Death statewide initiative. Chief deputy Travis Lapham said that the county received $10,075 from the program last year. This year’s amount is not guaranteed, but the department has requested $13,400 for the upcoming fiscal year. Traffic safety projects, including extra enforcement, are all part of the TZD mix. The new grant agreement runs from Oct. 1, 2017 through Sept. 30, 2019.

New policy for appointments

By a 4-1 margin, the board approved new policies for filling vacancies on two powerful and influential panels, the county’s Board of Adjustment and the Planning Commission. The policies were very similar. Briefly: The county will post notice of vacancies on it’s website, local newspapers, and forward that news to all township clerks for at least two weeks prior to application deadlines. Applications will be accepted from county residents “with a goal of representation from all commissioner districts.” County staff will prepare a set of questions for the applications, and those must be completed for persons to be considered for the posts. All eligible applications will be forwarded to commissioners for review, and each member will rank/order those. If a candidate from the open district cannot be found, then a “failed search” could be declared. That would open up the post to applicants from all districts.

Commissioner Justin Zmyewski cast a lone “no” vote on both motions. After the meeting, he said that the “timing has been very suspicious” for making changes to the appointment policy. When four openings came up on the Board of Adjustment at the beginning of 2017, interviews were held by human resources, the zoning administrator and two board members.

“It wasn’t until the names were released as to who was going to be appointed, then all of a sudden there was a problem with the process,” Zmyewski noted. “It seems like this has been a big excuse to make sure certain people were not appointed. If you really had a problem with the process, why wasn’t this talked about before the applications were sent in, before the interviews were conducted, and before the names were brought before the board at the board meeting?

A similar occurrence occurred one year earlier with the Planning Commission, Zmyewski said. “The names for planning commission members were brought forward for approval but then all of a sudden the process changed and suddenly other people were appointed without interviews or proper protocol. It’s the “Good ol’ Boys” at work again. Both times the board went away from a transparent, fair, interview process and leaned toward just appointing people they like versus  people who are best suited for the job.”