Bring on the Recall
By Patrick Sullivan | April 28, 2018
You’d have a hard time fitting on a campaign sign the reasons opponents of two Arcadia Township trustees want to see the officials removed from office. Likewise, those trustees’ supporters would have just as hard a time briefly making their case.
The township is divided over a years-old feud, one that involves a state police investigation into an alleged no-show job at the marina — and allegations of financial malfeasance.
Township voters will be asked to take sides on May 8, when some of the 600-plus residents in this lake-side Manistee County resort township head to the polls to decide if trustees Greg Wisner and Mike Cederholm should keep their part-time jobs.
AN ALLEGATION AND AN INVESTIGATION
This bitter dispute goes back to an investigation into payroll irregularities at the township marina in 2015.
Debbra Eckhout had recently been appointed township treasurer. Her appointment was made with help from her friend of a dozen years, Patrice Wisner, the township clerk and Trustee Greg Wisner’s wife.
In the ensuing months, however, Eckhout’s and Wisner’s relationship would break down, throwing township politics into turmoil.
“We worked well together until I started doing my job according to the law,” said Eckhout, a former Vasa race director and manager of the Benzonia Historical Museum, of her time working with Wisner. “Once I started doing things by the book is when our relationship fell apart.”
Eckhout said the turning point was in October 2015 when she returned from a vacation and learned of an inconsistency in the marina payroll.
“When I came back, my deputy [treasurer] pointed out to me that he discovered we were paying someone at the marina that didn’t actually work there. It was a ghost employee situation,” Eckhout said. “So I talked to some people at the Michigan Township Association, and they were very, very blunt — ‘Just call the police’ — and I talked to an auditor, and he said, ‘You have to report it.’”
Eckhout said she also attempted to tell the then-Township Supervisor, who didn’t return her call, and Trustee Cederholm, whom she said agreed that that Eckhout should go to the police. (Cederholm did not return a message seeking comment.)
“Nobody’s ever seen her there, which is in the police report. People that lived on their boats there didn’t see her there,” Eckhout said of the mystery employee. “She didn’t work there. They just used her Social Security number.”
The woman in question was the harbor master’s wife, Joan Williamson. State police investigators tracked down boaters who had spent most of the summer at the marina. They told police they never saw Joan Williamson working, according to a police report.
(Richard Williamson, the harbormaster, said he was advised not to comment about the case, but he said he believes he and his wife were exonerated by the investigation.)
Investigators eventually zeroed in on Patrice Wisner. Eckhout said she suspects Wisner engaged in creative bookkeeping in order to raise the harbormaster’s salary from $14,000 to $18,000, by arranging to pay $4,000 to his wife. Eckhout said that way, Richard Williamson’s income wouldn’t reach a threshold that would jeopardize his Social Security benefits. (Wisner denied that claim, saying that because of Williamson’s age, he was not at risk of losing Social Security.)
“They never admitted it. All they had to do was say, ‘Okay, yeah, we thought that would be okay because he didn’t want to have extra money because of his Social Security,’” Eckhout said. “All they had to do was pay back the money.”
The state police submitted a report to the Manistee County Prosecuting Attorney. Jonathon Hauswirth, the chief assistant prosecutor, declined to prosecute because he determined that state law had not been violated. He wrote to state police, however, that there might have been a violation of federal law, and he recommended they forward the report to federal authorities.
DISPUTED VERSION OF EVENTS
The Wisners have a different account of what transpired.
Patrice Wisner, who resigned as clerk in August because she said working conditions with Eckhout had become untenable, said that prior to Eckhout becoming a township official, she had no problem performing her duties as clerk.
“No one was as surprised as me when she went into attack mode,” Wisner said.
She said she believes Eckhout’s grudge against her stemmed from when Williamson was hired as harbormaster. She said Eckhout had a friend who wanted the job, but the township hired someone who was more qualified and, as early as May 2016, Eckhout stopped talking to her.
“She said, ‘There are people that don’t like the harbor master’s contract,’” Wisner said. “She said, ‘That job should have gone to a local person.’”
(Eckhout denied that she had supported someone else for the harbormaster job.)
Wisner said their relationship had broken down so much that by November, while Eckhout ran unopposed to be elected treasurer, Wisner faced an opponent in her election for clerk — an opponent supported by Eckhout. When Wisner won reelection without trouble, Wisner said that’s when Eckhout really attacked.
Wisner pointed out that Eckhout filed the police report over the marina payroll two days after the election.
“She could have brought it up at a board meeting. She could have gone to the township attorney herself if she thought the board was not being responsive,” Wisner said.
At the beginning of the investigation, when Wisner was contacted by the detective, she refused to talk to police and said she wanted to consult with the township attorney, Craig Rolfe. Wisner said she didn’t cooperate with police because the investigation took her by surprise and because she was advised by Rolfe not to talk to detectives.
“They called me at 8 o’clock on a Sunday night and demanded that I let them into the office and look at my personal records,” she said. “They wouldn’t tell me what it was about. … I mean, I’ve never been called by police in my life, so I was taken aback.”
Wisner said she didn’t know until months later that the person who made the complaint was Eckhout.
Indeed, the fact that Eckhout went to police instead of her fellow township officials, irks some of them to this day.
Greg Wisner said the board voted to reprimand Eckhout for filing a police report. Rolfe offered township officials his legal opinion that Eckhout’s decision to call police rather than go to the board with her concerns might have been illegal.
“That was improper, and that was why the board decided to admonish her,” Greg Wisner said. “That cost us a lot of money that could have been avoided if she would have brought her concerns to the board properly.”
Anyway, Greg Wisner said, Joan Williamson did work at the marina, and the only reason why the state police couldn’t find any witnesses to that was because they investigated in January.
“Two boaters’ statements, maybe three that they talked to? The investigation was done in the dead of winter when the boaters aren’t around,” he said.
Patrice Wisner and the Williamsons never did submit to interviews from investigators. At the direction of Rolfe, they submitted affidavits to the investigators stating that Joan Williamson indeed worked at the marina, according to the police report.
“POSSIBLY OBSTRUCTIVE AND UNETHICAL”
As this dispute has ramped up, so have the township attorney’s billings — Rolfe has billed Arcadia Township tens of thousands of dollars in recent months.
All township taxpayers pay those fees, and some have wondered whom Rolfe has been actually working for — the township as a whole, or some individual township officials.
“He is making a ton of money, a ton of money off this little township, because my other board members call him for every little thing: ‘What should we have on the agenda? What can we do about this? What can we do about that?’” Eckhout said.
After the marina payroll investigation, Rolfe filed a complaint against the state police because he claimed he wasn’t notified of the results in a timely manner, which he insisted was his right.
In April 2017, state police Det./Sgt. Mark Miller wrote to his post commander, F/Lt. Frank Keck, about Rolfe’s complaint. Miller questioned the attorney’s conduct.
“When asked about the conduct of Mr. Rolfe, Mr. Hauswirth (Manistee County’s assistant prosecutor) expressed concern that the conduct of Mr. Rolfe could be viewed as possibly obstructive and unethical related to this matter,” Miller wrote. “Mr. Hauswirth explained that it was highly unusual that Mr. Rolfe would claim that he is representing the interests of the Township but then actively represent the interests of the individual Township employees who were the focus of the criminal investigation.”
A woman who answered the phone at Rolfe’s Vicksburg office said Rolfe was not authorized to talk about Arcadia Township to a reporter.
Township resident Larry Olsen, who initiated the recall, said he is troubled by Rolfe’s role in local politics.
Olsen hired attorney Traverse City-based Kristen Houle. Houle first attempted to make peace among township officials and she later helped organize the recall.
Olsen, a 72-year-old who grew up in Arcadia and spent 40 years as a heating and air conditioning contractor downstate before moving back, said he is alarmed by the tens of thousands of dollars Rolfe has charged the township, so much so that he filed a complaint against Rolfe with the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission. (Rolfe also has billed the township for his time defending himself against that complaint, according to recent billings Rolfe submitted to the township.)
“It’s just every month that the attorney charges outrageous money to the township. They asked for advice on the recall [and he billed the township for that],” Olsen said. “And [consulting with township officials on recall campaigns] has been determined by the attorney general to be something you cannot do.”
Greg Wisner said that by representing the officials, Rolfe is representing the township. He said that by representing individual officials, Rolfe is representing the township.
“The township’s attorney, their job is to protect the township,” Greg Wisner said.
“STRANGE THINGS STARTED HAPPENING”
Eckhout said she believes that ever since she filed that police report, the Wisners, other officials, and Rolfe have been intent on extracting revenge, and that she’s been repeatedly set up to fail.
“Strange things started happening,” she said. “The clerk locked me out of the township books, the general ledger, so I couldn’t go in and reconcile her books. … She would address her notes to me, ‘D.A.’ And finally I said, ‘Who’s D.A.?’ [She said:] ‘Dumb Ass. D.A. means Dumb Ass.’”
(Wisner said that never happened and that, anyway, by that time, she and Eckhout were not speaking. Wisner also said it was Eckhout who took control of the financial records, preventing her from doing her job.)
In a November 2017 letter to the township board, Houle raised concerns about the money the township had spent on attorney fees and audits.
The township had just passed a routine audit conducted by Traverse City-based Gabridge & Co., she wrote, but despite not having grounds to do so, the board commissioned a forensic audit that would cost the township as much as $20,000 in another attempt to find something on Eckhout.
Robert Klein, who performed the first audit for Gabridge and Co., said the township was not advised to conduct a forensic audit, though they did ask to be referred to firms that could conduct one.
Eckhout said the other officials merely used some ambiguous statements in the audit as grounds to try to dig up any dirt on her that they could.
“Because there’s such antagonism coming from the other board members, just hate and vengeance, they took these things at the end of the audit they said should be addressed as, ‘We didn’t pass our audit,’” Eckhout said.
In response to the proposed forensic audit, Houle wrote to the officials that they needed to get beyond their differences and stop wasting money.
“There may be personality differences, but as public servants, the board members must put these differences aside, rise above personal conflict, and act in a manner that is in the best interest of the community,” Houle wrote.
Still, Eckhout’s opponents maintained that she was, at best, doing a bad job as treasurer, and the acrimony continued.
In February, Houle issued a press release announcing the recall campaign. Her statement noted that the township, which has an annual budget of around $200,000, had at that point in the fiscal year already paid Rolfe $45,000.
By then the results of the forensic audit had been announced, and the auditor had found no wrong-doing.
“One of the main reasons for the recall is that the trustees voted in favor of a costly forensic audit, even though the township passed their annual audit,” Houle said. “The forensic audit did not find any indications of fraud or wrong-doing.”
The auditor, Karl Haiser, C.P.A. & Co. of Grand Blanc, did not return a call seeking comment.
In the conclusion of his audit report, Haiser recommended a “minor procedural correction” in the manner that the township deposits marina cash because past practices had left incomplete records. But he said there was no fraud.
“Based on the nature of fraud, no assurances can be given that fraud does not exist,” the audit concluded. “However, based on the results of our examination, we found no direct evidence to support the conclusion and findings that Arcadia Township assets were misappropriated.”
Still, Greg Wisner said the forensic audit was not a waste of money, and he disputed that it found no wrongdoing.
“That would be incorrect,” Wisner said.
Wisner said that even though the conclusion of the forensic audit stated that there was no wrongdoing, that doesn’t mean that the audit cleared Eckhout, because the audit report mentioned some missing records.
THE STRESS OF NOVEMBER 2016…
Olsen said he believes the dispute is more complicated than just a dispute over a marina investigation.
He said he thinks it stems from a proposed municipal sewer that most residents opposed but was pushed by the Wisners. Eckhout opposed the sewer, and that might have made her an enemy.
“I got involved in the recall because of the fact that they were coming to the township meetings and lying, I mean, just out-and-out lying about what Debbie Eckhout was doing,” Olsen said. Greg Wisner said he agreed that bad feelings over the sewer project probably led to the recall effort against him.
Wisner said he supported a feasibility study to determine how much a sewer would cost. That study was not completed, and the project was killed.
“We were not able to complete the study, but there’s a few people who believe that my mission in life is to bring a sewer to Arcadia, and that’s simply not true,” he said.
Brad Hopwood, a builder and former planning commission member, who has been allied with the Wisners, has another take on what’s really the origin of the bad blood.
He noted that everything broke down right around the election in November 2016.
He said Patrice Wisner and Debbra Eckhout had been long-time friends, but they supported different candidates for president. He didn’t say which one supported which one. Each woman filled their yards with signs for their candidate of choice.
That put a strain on their relationship, he said, which completely disintegrated a day after the election.