03-22-2018 Hartford Township cemetery sexton embezzlement case back in court; Hartford Planning Comm

Hartford Planning Commission draws fire from two city commissioners for support of noncompliant marijuana shop location

By Jon Bisnett

The Monday March 19 workshop session of the Hartford City Council took yet another turn as Planning Commission chair Tim Kling reported a unanimous vote on the City’s Planning Commission making a recommendation to locate the proposed medical marijuana dispensary Med+Leaf at the former MacKinder Law Office building, next to City Hall at 11 West Main.

ACKNOWLEDGING 70 YEARS… Pictured (from the left) are Mark A. Manning, Paul Abrams and Joshua Woodwyk. Woodwyk is presenting a 70 Year Masonic Membership Award to Abrams.


Kling’s report drew immediate criticism from commissioners Frank Dockter and Terry Tibbs. Tibbs questioned how Kling could approve a non-compliant site. Kling defended his committee’s recommendation by noting that based on the information they had to work with the group was unanimous in their preference of the 11 West Main site as opposed to the alternative of the fully compliant 309 West Main site across from Ely Park. Kling went on to say the non-compliance that Tibbs referred to is still in question. The City Attorney gave opinion that 11 West Main is non-compliant, while the legal team for the Von Koenigs disavows that opinion.  Kling contends the distance from the church issue is for the lawyers or the commission to sort out, not the Planning Commission.

Med+Leaf’s principle investor Doug Von Koenig spoke briefly to remind the pundits that thus far the only individual that has called 11 West Main non-compliant by measure is the City’s part-time Attorney Harold Shuitmaker. He reminded of digital audio evidence he had previously presented in which City Manager Yemi Akinwale had vetted the distance at 570 feet as quoted in the Herald-Palladium following the January meeting. Akinwale, who had initially denied the statement until the recording transcript came out, now downplays his own statement saying, “I am not a voting member of the council.”

Commissioner Dockter further rebuffed the Planning Commission action for not following the opinion expressed by the City Attorney. “Planning is appointed, but we are elected and speak for the people of Hartford. The people don’t want this on Main Street,” said Dockter.

The next step will be a vote at the upcoming business session. Med+Leaf hopes to hear a motion to approve 11 West Main with a conditional variance of the measurement. Should the City Commission approve, the matter will make one more trip back to the Planning Commission for action on the variance, and that recommendation would then come back to the City Commission for final approval at the April Business Session.

Von Koenig added his side bar attempts to acquiesce to concerns expressed to him by Commissioner Tibbs, in that Med+Leaf would agree not use the front entrance of the building except as a fire exit and further would not place any signage on the building facing Main Street. Tibbs immediately responded that he withdraws that position and is no longer in support of those measures as a workable compromise. Both Tibbs and Dockter clearly stand on City Attorney Harold Shuitmaker’s opinion of non-compliant distance less than 500 feet from the church located at 9 West Shepard Street.

Guests

Dianna Rigozzi visited on behalf of Van Buren County Senior Services to report over 110 Hartford area seniors have participated in over 2,000 individual activities offered by the program.

A Service Recognition Day program will be held April 3 at noon at the Hartford United Methodist Church.

Public Comment

Peggy Bowen spoke as a resident of Shepard Street to attest to the validity and activity of the Seventh Day Adventist Church at 9 West Shepard.

John Sutton II presented himself as a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church located on Pinery Road, but was quick to point out he has served as a Sabbath Day School teacher for the Church on West Shepard as evidenced in a collection of church bulletins he possessed. Sutton explained the worship times posted on the sign were incorrect as the church had changed the services.

That sign has since been updated displaying the correct times.

Communications

March Board of Review will take place March 21, 9:00 am – 4:00 pm and 2:00 – 9:00 p.m. on the 22nd; Van Buren Sportsman’s Club Annual Easter Egg Hunt is planned for March 24, 1:00 p.m. in Ely Park; Hartford Lions Club Concerts in the Park Donation Request; City Hall will be closed in observance of Good Friday March 30.

Police Report

Chief Tressa Beltran presented a written report detailing activity of 672 duty hours with eight foot patrol hours which included 110 actions for the month of February, resulting in 22 arrests including four felonies.

Beltran verbally reported the hiring of part-time officer Kyle Hart, a graduate of Grand Rapids Community College Law Enforcement program.

Ordinance Officer Report

A written report from Ordinance Officer Jim Coleman noted just five property inspections for the month of February. Blight postings for the month totaled 35 violations resulting in 35 follow-ups.

Fire Report

Assistant Chief Kevin McGrew was on hand to report the Hartford Joint Fire Department responded to 27 calls in the month of February, including 22 rescue/ medical calls and two structure fires.

McGrew reported training with Pride Care Ambulance to familiarize the HFD with the Pride equipment layout. “Firefighters often serve as ‘go-fers’ for the EMTs on scene and need to know where they keep everything on the rig,” said McGrew.

Ambulance Report

Pride Care Ambulance head Bill Mears attended to report five Priority I calls, with an average response time of 7:28. Transition has been relatively smooth but Mears will continue to review placement of his personnel with a goal of dialing in even shorter response times.

Public Works

Superintendent Dan Staunton was present to answer questions on his written report noting again a full slate of snow removal and salting of City streets and sidewalks. One water turn-off took place for the month. The city pumped 4.870 thousand gallons in February. Some cold patching of streets has begun.

Wastewater Treatment Plant

Plant Operator Tom Strand submitted a written report that all State of Michigan reports for the month have been filed. Strand reported routine tasks, with no mention of non-compliant water quality.

Treasurer’s Report

Treasurer Pam Shultz presented a written report for the month of February showing expenses in the amount of $81,663.15 with nothing remarkable.

City Manager’s Report

 1 East Main: City Manager Yemi Akinwale reported Pitsch Construction is moving along on interior asbestos abatement. Frost laws must clear before heavy equipment can be brought in for full demolition.

 Hartford Public Schools: Akinwale plans to attend a meeting at HPS Central Office on April 10 for further discussion of a community wide marketing plan.

 Marion Avenue Property: Akinwale reported the 9.7 acres city property located behind 210 Marion Avenue, books carries an SEV that would put the property value at $75,000. Considering a defunct building that is in bad shape, the City Manager is recommending the council place a minimum value of $50,000 and accept bids.

 Former Fruit Stand to be Demolished: Akinwale has received word that the former Dowd Fruit Stand near I-94 will be demolished by owner John Faulkner in hopes of attracting a buyer for retail development. Faulkner owns the adjacent 100-plus acres zoned agricultural, while the old fruit stand is commercial property. Permits have been filed. Akinwale expects the demolition to be swift.

Old business

The final draft of the Pride Care Ambulance contract will be on the agenda for approval at the coming business meeting.

Akinwale reports the building at 1 West Main has been sold with the new owners planning on developing the upper floor into four apartments with commercial space on the ground floor. Once the sale is close the new owners plan to stabilize the building by tuck-point exterior brick work that has been an ongoing concern.

The Senior Service Millage intended for the August Ballot has been rejected by the County Clerk due to an error in the language. The correction will be made and brought back before the council.

City Manager Akinwale is working on a Right of Way Permit that pertains mostly to public utilities and their subcontractors, who will “…No longer be able to just show up and start digging up our streets,” said Akinwale. The permit will require applicants to subscribe to the practice of leaving the work area “equal to or better than” the condition before work was done. The measure will includes not only streets, but sidewalks, driveways and trees.

New business

The Council gave unanimous approval to appoint Mike Banic as Deputy Building Inspector to serve as backup for brother, Mark Banic.

A proclamation in support of National Service Recognition Day was introduced.

Having no further business, Mayor Hall adjourned the meeting. The council next meets for the monthly business session on Monday, March 26.

Served Coloma and Hartford Lodges Paul Abrams receives Masonic 70 year award from Grand Master

Joshua M. Woodwyk, Grand Master and Mark A. Manning Senior Grand Warden of the Grand Lodge F & AM of Michigan joined several local Freemasons at the Willows in St. Joseph to honor one of their long time members, Paul Abrams, of Benton Harbor. Grand Master Woodwyk presented Abrams with his 70 Year Masonic Membership certificate and lapel pin. Abrams, who was born in Chicago on November 18, 1926, became a Master Mason on March 15, 1948 in Florida Coffinbury Lodge #309 in Hartford. He served two different terms as Worshipful Master of that lodge in the late 50s and early 60s. He is a Lifetime member of Lakeshore Lodge #298 in Benton Harbor where he serves as Chaplain and Coloma Lodge #162 in Coloma where he serves on the ritual team. Paul stated that he is honored to have been a Freemason for so many years and he was especially honored to be receiving his 70 year membership awards from the Grand Master. Andrew Heier and Charles Weeden, Worshipful Masters of Lakeshore Lodge and Coloma Lodge respectively, as well as several members from both lodges were in attendance for the presentation. Paul’s daughter, Dr. Thereasa Abrams and two of her friends also attended. In addition to the 70 year awards, Grand Master Woodwyk presented Abrams with a special Medallion honoring Freemasons who are also veterans. Abrams served in World War II and the Korean Conflict.

Sewer rates going up for Watervliet Twp. residents

By Annette Christie The Watervliet Township Board approved a sewer rate increase at their Monday, March 19 meeting, action that some might say is long overdue Supervisor Dan Hutchins said. Hutchins said that there has been a lot of discussion over the township’s sewer fund balance that has been dwindling since 2013-2014. The need to rebuild the lift station has not helped. The coming increases are 25% in 2018, 25% in 2019, and 25% in 2020; making the costs $83 in 2018; $104 in 2019; and $130 in 2020. The board worked together to reach a compromise on the subject. The township plans a full rate study in the next three years as a part of the SAW Grant. Board approvals In other business, the board approved a renewal of the assessor contract with Eugene Jarvis. The contract extends the assessor’s service through March 31, 2022. Jarvis is paid $13,980 for reappraisal duties, $1,200 for assessing services, and other general assessor duties $23,700 annually. At the direction of their assessor, the board also passed a resolution and a policy related to a waiver of property transfer fees and penalties. The resolution states that the township board may waive penalty fees that could be charged when a property owner fails to file a property transfer affidavit with the local governing body within 45 days of a transfer of property. The waiver policy was also approved. The board also approved placing a renewal of the North Berrien Historical Society Millage on the August ballot. Representatives with the society were on hand to ask for the .25 mills renewal for the period of 2018-2021. At the request of Alan Smaka with Wightman and Associates, the board approved a water agreement clarifying statement regarding water rates for township customers. The clarifying language is part of the water agreement between the city and the township. It provides a table with the water prices on it and closes a rate gap over the next 20 years between the township and city residents. Resident requests help with drainage and privacy issues During public comments, a resident requested help with a drainage and privacy issue due to new businesses on Arnt Blvd. Elaine Gaynor asked for a long term solution to large amounts of water in her back yard. While she conceded that the widespread flooding that occurred at the end of February did not help, some of it is attributed to Casey’s General Store. She said they have been very helpful to her and are willing to address that issue. She also asked about a privacy fence or wall behind that business and any future development on that road. Supervisor Dan Hutchins said he and the County will work with her on the drain issue. Trustee Joe Stepich, who also serves on the Planning Commission, said they will take the privacy fence/wall into consideration for future developers.

BACK IN COURT… Former Hartford Township Cemetery Sexton Gerrie Heskett (right) sits alongside Defense Attorney Joseph Fletcher in South Haven’s 7th District Court Thursday, March 15 before Judge Arthur Clarke in a Preliminary Examination with the 61-year-old Heskett facing the Van Buren County Prosecutor’s Office request she be bound over for trial on two counts of embezzlement. (TCR photo by Jon Bisnett)


Hartford Township cemetery sexton embezzlement case back in court

By Jon Bisnett Judge Arthur Clarke heard arguments and testimony at South Haven District Court on Thursday, March 15 during the preliminary exam in the case of Gerrie Heskett, the former long-term cemetery sexton, accused of embezzling $65,000 from Hartford Township. Clarke said he would take the matter under advisement and rule shortly as to further disposition of the case. Gerrie Lee Heskett, 61, of Hartford was arraigned back on June 14, on a charge of embezzlement of between $50,000 and $100,000. The investigation revealed an alleged $65,000 called into question over a period dating from 2011 to 2016. Hartford Township’s board alerted the Van Buren County Sheriff’s Department in late 2016 who then launched an investigation in January of 2017 into alleged missing funds, mostly cash transactions that were the responsibility of Heskett. The period involved spanned January 2011 through December 2016. Forensic auditor Karl Haiser of Grand Blanc, Michigan aided in the investigation of township records while police executed multiple search warrants to gather evidence, the sheriff’s office reported. The investigation report was turned over to the Van Buren County Prosecutor’s Office, which ultimately authorized the embezzlement charge. Hartford Township officials discharged Heskett in late 2016 when discrepancies arose and now subcontracts the maintenance work Heskett formerly performed at the two township cemeteries. Burial sales and billings for grave opening charges have since been brought back in-house at the Township Hall office. Heskett had been employed as cemetery sexton since 1997. During the preliminary examination only one witness was called, Township Clerk Julie Sweet. Sweet was questioned extensively as to ongoing procedures of cemetery administration that were in place prior to her election and had remained so until the 2016 irregularities came to light. Heskett had access to the “Burial Book” record of lot sales and Sweet stated it was common practice for her as clerk to pre-sign up to five lot certificates (essentially a deed for the lot) at a time, which then were kept by Heskett who conducted her transactions via a cash box in the field. Sweet testified that a red flag occurred, triggering the investigation, when a local acquaintance of the clerk quizzed her as to why the Township did not accept checks and would only take cash when the couple sought purchase of a burial lot at Maple Hill Cemetery with Heskett handling the transaction.

Judge Clarke must now decide on motions from the prosecution to have Heskett bound over for trial on two counts; embezzlement of money or property valued at between $50,000 and $100,000 (a felony) which carries a penalty of jail time of up to 15 years and a fine of $25,000 or three times the value of the money or property, whichever is greater. The prosecutor also seeks a second count of embezzlement by a public official. The prosecutor contends that although not an elected official, Heskett acting as an agent of the Township, is treated the same as an elected official by the letter of the law. Defense Attorney Joseph Fletcher has filed summary disposition to drop all charges against Heskett in essence contending that Heskett had acquired personal ownership of a quantity of burial lots as an investment over the years and was simply transferring ownership of lots she owned. Judge Clarke’s ruling is expected in short order.

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