Parks and Rec Sharply Criticized at BOC Meeting
Effectiveness of Department Questioned
By Dianne Alward-Biery
Cleaver Staff Writer
Copyright Clare County Cleaver
HARRISON – The July 18 meeting of the Clare County Board of Commissioners saw some sharp commentary directed at the county’s Parks and Recreation Commission, along with defense of that commission’s purpose and value.
The Board had been addressed previously by Dave Coker, Parks and Rec chairperson, who informed the Board about the the reorganization efforts. It also had heard from Don Kolander, Parks and Recreation Commission director, about the former interconnectedness of the Commission and the Friends of Clare County Parks and Recreation. As it turns out, that Kolander also had served as director of the Friends group. That dual involvement was ended when Kolander removed himself from the Friends Board.
It was made clear that the two entities could work in concert toward common goals, but that to have Kolander on both boards was a violation of Commission by-laws.
At the June 20 BOC meeting, Commissioner Sandra Bristol expressed her concern and exasperation with the way Parks and Rec issues were being handled and how non-productive the meetings were.
Coker returned to the July 18 BOC meeting in response to a request to answer concerns the Board had regarding the Parks and Rec Commission. Coker insisted that Kolander and David Rowe, Parks and Rec secretary, join him at the table.
Adminstrator Tracy Byard told Coker that questions had been raised by Commissioners Jack Kleinhardt and Leonard Strouse about different actions and ways to move forward with the Parks and Rec Commission. When chairperson Karen Lipovsky explained the Board had sought information about the costs for insurance and maintenance of the Clark Memorial Park on Fir Road, which is being made available by Hayes Township.
Lipovsky told Coker the Board had been talking about retaining Don Kolander as Parks and Rec director who would report to the Board of Commissioners, and dissolving the Parks and Rec Board, but then possibly bringing that board back into the picture when the park actually becomes a reality.
Coker described his three-year tenure with Parks and Rec, saying he had attended roughly half of the quarterly meetings, but that since the Commission had taken a different direction, there had been a move to monthly meetings in an attempt to get it “going in the right direction.” He also spoke of the legal issues which were being addressed for the first time by a commission which heretofore had simply “just been there, and not been doing anything.”
“That’s not what the commission is for, by state statute and everything else,” Coker said. “Once we redirected, we started looking at we need to own a park, what parks are available.”
He said all his board’s members had stopped taking their stipends, which he found interesting in light of the BOC plan to dissolve that board.
“You have a board that’s working for the County Commissioners that’s putting in 20-50 hours a month, and you’re going to dissolve that board that’s working for free for you?” Coker said.
He conceded that his group had a tough time getting a quorum in 2016 and the first half of 2017, but that since then with the exception of the previous evening [due to extenuating circumstances], quorum had been met at every meeting. Coker also noted that the road commission never attends.
“We’ve got a very productive board,” he said. “I think it is moving in the right direction very rapidly.”
He said the difficulty lies with his board’s lack of identity and clarity of who it is, its job definition and where it falls under state statute. Coker said the original understanding had been wrong and the Board re-evaluated and moved in a different direction, understood again, and found out recently it was still wrong. The realization now is that Parks and Rec is simply an advisory board.
Coker said the biggest problem for his board is that there is no line of communication with the BOC, and that Kolander is not a link between the two boards.
At that point, Commissioner Sandra Bristol took issue with Coker’s seeming to make Kolander the brunt of the situation.
“That’s one of the reasons why I resigned [from the Parks and Rec Board],” Bristol said. “The meetings went from horrid and chaotic last year, four of them, to bizarre this year, even though you narrowed it down to one hour.
“It made me physically sick three days before those meetings, and I was upset for two days after,” Bristol said. “It’s painful to watch you treat him that way.”
Bristol said the board is still ineffectual, and that when Coker joined he began to break apart Friends of Parks and Rec, and the reason why he can’t get another commissioner to step up – or the road commission doesn’t attend – is “because the meetings are just horrid and nothing gets done.”
Coker defended saying nothing had been getting done because nothing was being asked to be done. He said he was not picking on Kolander, but rather there was no job description.
“We’ve asked since December for a job description and we haven’t gotten one,” he said.
Coker said with the Clark Memorial Park, several people had met at the park to look it over [an outing for which Bristol said she had received no notice] and that his board had requested documents from the road commission and sheriff department to help decide if it is a viable park. He said that for the past three months the issue has sat on the table as information trickles in.
“Could we push forward and say the county should buy this park?” Coker said. “Absolutely not, we don’t have all the information yet from the sheriff department as to past vandalism and security.”
He said that would include security recommendations such as cameras. Coker also said the road commission estimate of what it would cost to gravel and clear the trail, had just been received.
“Put that park aside, because that’s a moot point right now,” Bristol said. “I don’t think the commission right now – the way it’s been run – could handle a park. I can’t even begin to tell you how unpleasant your meetings are.”
“I don’t know where to go with that,” Coker said. “We’ve been going in a direction that’s never been gone before. If there are new members that need to be put on there, then put them on there. I have been very vocal that if there’s a problem between me and the Friends, I would have no problem resigning. If there’s issues, we’ll do what we need to move this forward. I feel that we have the board going in the right direction; dissolving this doesn’t make any sense.”
Lipovsky reiterated that incomplete information was why the BOC had not yet taken action regarding the Parks and Rec Board, and that no decision or action would be taken at the current meeting – nor was it likely at the August meeting.
Coker noted the request which had been made of the BOC to allow Kolander an additional five hours per week increase amounting to $5,000. [Kolander has taken repeated reductions for his department in recent years in an attempt to keep it functioning]. Coker added the suggestion the county pony up an additional $5,000 “in the coffers” so funds are available if the county chooses to accept the Hayes Township gift of Clark Memorial Park.
At this point Byard cited the park’s annual utilities as $800, and an insurance quote of $42 per year.
Coker then brought up the park equipment as not being ADA compliant, the need to develop a long-term plan, and the immediate need to address the condition of the parking lot.
“We could take it over at a dollar, which is what they’re proposing,” Coker said. “But to take it over and not have any funds and let it sit there….”
He said the plan is to seek grant funding, with the possibility of having the “seed” $5,000 from the county simply sit in an account. Lipovsky said she wasn’t sure if there was $5,000 available currently for the Parks and Rec account, as the coming year’s budget is still being worked on.
Coker then related what Commissioner Jack Kleinhardt’s directive to the Parks and Rec Commission had been at the first of the year.
“‘We understand,’ he said, ‘Dave, we spend a lot of money on the Sheriff Department and the inmates and the court, prosecuting attorney’s office, jail security and maintenance, cleanup and all these other things. But we do very little in this county for the underprivileged and the youth and the elderly and the kids that need the park.’ And if you look at where that park’s at that’s a great example of where we should start. That’s a neighborhood that could desperately use this park, and that would be an opportunity for us to develop our park system if we’re going to continue.”
At that point, Bristol asked just when Jack Kleinhardt issued a “directive” and Coker replied that it was a personal directive to him from Kleinhardt.
“He said ‘Dave, here’s what I would like to see happen on this board,’” Coker said. “That is the commissioner saying ‘Dave, look, go this direction.’ As a commissioner, he’s one of the people we listen to…he said, ‘Here’s is the direction I would like you to go.’ That’s a directive.”
Lipovsky said she and Kleinhardt also would like Coker to be able to work with the Friends group, and that Friends has done a lot for the county and, with their help, the Parks and Rec board could actually get somewhere. She said the Parks and Rec board was not being dissolved and that if it needed a BOC member, she would attend if available. She also asked if there could be more discussion in two months to see where the Parks and Rec Board had come and she has a chance to see how that board runs.
Coker agreed and expressed frustration in not knowing Bristol had a problem with the meetings, which he said was unknown until she resigned.
Lipovsky promised that if she sits on the board, Coker will know if she has a problem.
“That’s not really true,” Bristol said. “All last year at the meetings we had a quorum, there was plenty of talk about how the meetings were run. And I was relatively quiet this year to see how things were going but, no, I didn’t hold things back.”
Commissioner Leonard Strouse asked Coker to clarify if Parks and Rec was recommending the county take on the Clark Memorial Park, and Coker said it seemed a good acquisition, but his board couldn’t actually make that recommendation until it has all the projected costs, etc., which the BOC had not yet acquired.
Lipovsky said communication has been a problem, and that it is Parks and Rec’s job to acquire that information, which it would then share with the administrator, who would in turn share it with the BOC.
Bristol then took issue with the time it has taken Parks and Rec to get information, when Hayes has readily supplied any information about the park. Coker said the historical information is in hand, but the question lies with the unknowns of lawn maintenance, widening the trail, winter upkeep, the driveway, and making the site ADA-accessible to make it grant applicable.
“We’re all doing what we can do,” Coker said. “We have Don, it was our understanding, but recently he doesn’t have to listen to us, report to us, do anything we ask or say. And if we don’t have a liaison between us and you, and someone to help work for us, all we’re doing is guiding Don. And if Don decides that because he’s above us and that’s not something he wants to do or needs to do – then what’s our point on these things?”
“Your job is to tell Don what you advise that the county does,” Lipovsky said. “And he’s to come back and talk with Tracy [Byard] and Tracy brings it to us. And that should be the end of it.”
Bristol again found fault with Coker saying there had not been time to get things done.
“The last several meetings that I attended, you were very specific with Don in an unkind manner about the information he was supposed to get regarding this park,” she said. “That’s been probably three months, and nothing’s happened – which brings up my point again. That commission does not work effectively.”
Coker again sought BOE action on the motion to increase Parks and Rec Director Don Kolander’s weekly hours to 20. Coker also closed his comments by describing what his commission was asking for as equal to “less than 1/15th of 1 percent of the county budget to help out citizens, youth and the elderly with the parks.”
In final public comment, Marty Johnson, who is part of the Friends of Clare County Parks and Recreation and is part of the Clare County Parks and Recreation Commission, spoke on behalf of Parks and Rec, telling the BOC it should not doubt the commitment of anybody who was at the meeting. He also spoke of the hard work done by Kolander, but suggested a job description is needed, as well as direction for the Commission as to who to advise. Johnson said there are some personality conflicts on the Commission, and that he would be suggesting some changes that same day.
He also spoke of a true need for an umbrella organization to review various recreation projects in the county and help determine how to focus efforts.
Need for Advisory Commission
Don Kolander, Parks and Recreation Commission director, made his own comments regarding the Parks and Rec Commission, which he reiterated is an advisory board.
“I listen to them and try to report to you guys as much as possible on what’s going on with Parks and Rec in Clare County,” he said. “I want Sandy to know that we are working hard. I’ve gotten estimates from the road commission; I’m looking into grants and playground equipment. We’re looking at $30,000 of playground equipment so it’s up to ADA code. I’ve looked into grants to widen the trails.”
Kolander said the Commission is not sitting around doing nothing, but that he cannot do it all by himself.
“I want this board’s help,” he said. “I want them to tell me what they would like to see. They’re the voice of the people, they’re out there like you are. I want to know what the people want and I want to be able to go to the Friends Board, Pere Marquette Friends in Midland. I want to go to Lincoln Township, the Shingle Lake project, Farwell. Lake Station is doing some phenomenal things over there. I can’t do it all by myself.”
Kolander said that if the BOC dissolves the Commission board and still purchases Clark Memorial Park, he would still work “his butt off’ to get it going.
“All it needs is some programs, some events and some promotion,” he said. “People don’t even know it’s there.”
He repeated that it is a free board and that people are putting their time and their gas into it.
“They just want to see something for the seniors, something for the kids,” Kolander said. “That’s their benefit out of it. They don’t want monetary benefit, they just want to see things happening in Clare County. And tourism is very important to this county. It affects the economies of Clare, Farwell, Lake George, Lake Station. That’s what brings the money into these little places. People want to know where they can hunt and fish, and all the things with their kids.”
Kolander again expressed his need for the Parks and Rec board, but also that he understood Bristol’s frustration.
“I was frustrated like Sandy was, but she’s being very honest about it,” he said. “When you can’t make quorum, it just makes you mad – because these people make this commitment, but they don’t show up! We’re not a working committee, we’re an advisory committee, and I listen to them. I try to make things happen, and that’s all I can do.”
Parks and Rec Financial Impact
Dave Rowe, Parks and Recreation Board secretary, addressed the BOC on his board’s thoughts on Parks and Rec and tourism affects the county.
“I’m sure some of you have heard this speech before, but I’m going to say it again,” Rowe said. “I firmly believe there are three types of jobs in Clare County. The southern end is mostly farming. The rest of the county is basically woods and hills which leads to tourism. The third jobs are those that support those other two. Granted, there’s the schools, the county, all that.
“You have heard Jim [Gelios] say it, other people say it, and I firmly believe that Lori Ware Phelps is your best employee as far as generating money,” Rowe said. “She gets paid a very little bit compared to what she brings into this county.
“When you think about tourism, it is one-third of our economy, whether it be the fast food heaven at the north end of Clare or the elevator in Clare. Those guys support the other things. How many times does that dollar get shifted around Clare County – which in reality blows that up to a lot of bucks. And you’re getting things really, really cheap.
“You just approved $37,000 for the Sheriff Department – needed,” he said. “But you’re spending less than that on Parks and Rec. I’ve been on this commission since the beginning and we started out with the deal of promoting any parks, rec and tourism in the county.”
He went on to speak of the Roadside Park which Parks and Rec obtained from the road commission.
“The Board worked their butt off, Don [Kolander] especially, to make that park beautiful,” Rowe said. “What happened to it? Road commission took it back. OK, that’s fine. Then Michelle [Ambrozaitis] started looking at our by-laws and found out we aren’t supposed to do anything except with what land we have. Time out: we don’t own any land. We don’t have any money to buy any land for a park.”
Rowe said the commission foundered, and when it got new direction the previous evening, it floundered again.
“But, if we have direction of what would be our goal -- what we need to do -- from you people, we will do it,” he said. “There’s a bunch of people that are on this commission who are dedicated and are at almost every meeting. I can’t see losing this commission. One: it’s free. Two: if you lose it, you will never get it back.”
Sandra Bristol then interjected that she did not believe that, and that if the county wanted the commission back, it would be back.
Rowe repeated that, if lost, the commission would not come back.