Lowell Twp Board Recap: Fire Chief Contract Approved Despite Reservations

More than two dozen people showed up for the Lowell Township Board meeting last night. Most appeared to be there for an update on a wastewater treatment plant that had been proposed for property along Grand River Drive. However, the township had already broken the purchase agreement on that property, and the main topic of discussion was instead a contract for the new chief of the Lowell Area Fire Department.

The meeting ran approximately an hour and 20 minutes, and all board members were present except Steve Vander Ziel.

Questions Raised About Fire Chief Contract

Although not originally on the agenda, the board added an item to discuss a proposed contract for a new fire chief. Former Chief Ron van Overbeek retired in September, and then-Deputy Chief Shannon Witherell was tapped to serve as the interim chief. The Lowell Area Fire and Emergency Services Authority Board would now like to move Witherell to the position full-time.

The Authority Board approved an employment contract at their meeting this past Thursday, and Lowell City Council voted on the matter last month. Now, the other authority members, Lowell Charter Township and Vergennes Township, need to ok the contract as well.

Carlton Blough, Lowell Township Trustee and the board’s representative on the Fire Authority, said a swearing-in ceremony had been scheduled for Witherell on Wednesday night at 7pm.

Resident Greg Forbes asked why a national search had not been conducted as was recommended by a consultant hired by the authority to evaluate staffing needs.

“The main reason, in my opinion, is that we had some pressure from the city, particularly the city manager,” Blough responded. He added the authority board felt they had a good candidate in Witherell and there was no reason to look outside the department. “If we did a national search and brought [in] someone else, we would have a fire department in disarray,” according to Blough.

Forbes asked why the department would be in disarray, and Supervisor Jerry Hale responded that he believed people would leave the fire department.

Jessica Marks, a Lowell Township resident and chair of the Lowell Area Fire and Emergency Services Authority Board, was also present at the meeting. She said it was determined Lowell wasn’t in a geographic location that would draw in candidates from a national search. Later, she added the consultant’s report included a number of recommendations but not all were applicable to the Lowell department. For instance, the report suggested hiring an administrative assistant to handle the paperwork associated with having full-time employees, but Marks said that wasn’t necessary.

At the previous Lowell Township Board meeting, it was mentioned that the total cost of the contract would be nearly $100,000. Blough said at the recent Authority Board meeting, some provisions were revised and the value is now closer to $90,000. The fire chief salary will be $62,000 for full-time employment. Previously, the fire chief was a part-time position that paid $28,000 annually plus an additional amount for each call.

Clerk Monica Burtt said there were a couple red flags for her. She was concerned she had only recently been given the contract to review and there was no definite number provided as to the cost to the township. She noted the contract provided three weeks of vacation in the first year, four weeks in the second year and stated that vacation time in the third year could be negotiated. “Usually when you have vacation, it’s [based] on how much [time] you put in,” Burtt said.

Burtt was also concerned the authority would make 12% payments into a retirement fund with no employee contribution required. Plus, she said, the authority would be providing a vehicle and gas card to the chief.

Marks said the $55,000 to purchase that vehicle would come from authority funds and would not be an additional expense for the township. Forbes asked if there would be a cap on the mileage driven with the vehicle, and someone else in the audience asked whether the truck could be used to drive, for example, to a child’s sports game.

Trustee Mark Anderson replied that he would prefer to have the chief drive the authority vehicle to a child’s game so he would have his gear with him at all times. Then, he could go directly to a call if needed.

Another person asked what if the game was in Muskegon. Marks said the truck would only be used in the service call area, but Forbes noted the contract didn’t seem to stipulate that.

Resident Susan Reister-Tomkins, who previously served on the Fire Authority Board, asked about cost-of-living increases and how quickly the retirement plan would be vested. Blough did not know the answer.

“These are questions we need answered,” said Treasurer Ronda Benedict.

“We’ve already arranged for a swearing-in ceremony, and we haven’t even figured out the details,” Forbes said. “Wow. Cart before the horse.”

However, Anderson disagreed that any lingering questions should delay approval of the contract. “This is easy to work out,” he said. “Easy.”

Marks said there was urgency in approving the contract since paid, on-call firefighters work during the day. Once the contract is approved, Witherell will quit his current job to provide full-time, daytime coverage.

Anderson made a motion to approve the contract “with the retirement adjustments that are needed.” Trustee William Thompson seconded the motion. The motion passed unanimously but not without some dissent from members of the board.

“I feel like we’re being put over a barrel here, and I don’t like it,” Benedict said, “but I don’t want to go without fire protection.” Burtt and Hale echoed that sentiment when casting their votes.

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City Officials Deny Pressuring Authority Board

After the meeting, Lowell’s First Look reached out to Lowell City Manager Mike Burns to give him an opportunity to respond to Blough’s comment about city pressure being the reason no national search was held. Burns said he believed Blough misunderstood his involvement in the process which he described as “very minimal.”

Burns also referred Lowell’s First Look’s inquiry to Lowell Mayor Mike DeVore, who is the council’s representative on the Fire Authority Board. The mayor said he understood from people who were in attendance at the meeting that Blough was expressing two comments – one about perceived city pressure and another about the city manager – and not one continuous thought.

“[A]s far as I can gather, this is simply an attempt to stir up controversy for an article,” DeVore wrote in an email. He noted that he was only one of six members on the Fire Authority Board, and that the city has no more influence on the board than Lowell Township or Vergennes Township.

No one at the township meeting mentioned DeVore or implied that he was the cause of the pressure. However, the former chair of the Fire Authority Board told Lowell’s First Look earlier in the year that he wondered if DeVore’s previous employment with the fire department and friendships with firefighters might influence his decisions as a board member.

DeVore also said that Burns only attended one meeting. The city manager had been asked to comment on the process being used since the city had recently gone through a similar process when it hired a new police chief. In concluding his email, DeVore wrote that Witherell has been a member of the fire department since 1994, is well respected and will excel in his role as fire chief.

During the township meeting, no one disputed Witherell’s qualifications, expertise or commitment although, at one point, Forbes asked how the township knew it had the best person for the job if it had not considered other candidates. Overall, the main focus of the township meeting discussion was on the cost and details of benefits.

Other Action by Township Board

While discussion on the fire chief contract took up most of the meeting time, the township board did address a number of other issues as well:

  • Approved special assessments for streetlights in the Twin Oaks, Stony Bluff, EastGate and Whispering Hills communities.
  • Approved a preliminary plat for phase 4 of the Stony Bluff development.
  • Approved a $4,600 expense to reformat the township ordinances and make them easier to view and search online.
  • Approved up to $20,000 to be used as needed for engineering services related to discussions with the City of Lowell regarding the expansion of water and sewer systems.
  • Approved holiday pay for the deputy zoning administrator.
  • Formally terminated the purchase agreement for 12108 Grand River Drive, which had been the proposed site of a future wastewater treatment facility. The township is instead trying to reach an agreement with the City of Lowell for expanded water and sewer services.

The next regular meeting of the Lowell Charter Township Board will take place on December 21, 2020 at 7pm.

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