Because of Good Intergovernmental Relations, Some Things Could Be Buried Quickly

Case study

Chapter 19 Because of Good Intergovernmental Relations, Some Things Could Be Buried Quickly

  • “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” —Edmund Burke

The Greater Grand River School District decided to build its new high school on a parcel of land within Eastman Township. It was to be a three-story structure. As the parcel of land abutted the dividing line between Eastman Township and the much larger city of Grand River, the school district made a concerted effort to have the land annexed to the city. The school officials claimed that they needed the higher quality police and fire services of the city.

Although the parcel of land was not subject to taxation, the township challenged the action, and Eastman won a special court order enjoining an annexation action by the city. The court (judge) recognized that while the township fire services were based upon volunteers serving out of a station with an on-duty chief, the station in this case was only 1 mile from the school. On the other hand, the city fire station serving the area was over 6 miles away. The township fire station also served as a substation for its full-time police force. The township and the city shared a common water and sanitation sewer district, so these services never were at issue. The judge’s decision was made easier when the township made a binding commitment to purchase a hook and ladder fire truck that could reach the top of the new school structure.

The school district was content with the decision, and they pledged not to appeal the ruling to a higher court. In actuality, the effort at annexation was made to appease several school trustees who represented more affluent city areas, and, in effect, considered the formerly rural township to be quite inferior in terms of services. The reality was that school district managers had been very satisfied in its relations with Eastman Township, 90% of whose residents lived in the school district. The Greater Grand River School District had six schools in the township, the new high school, a middle school, and six elementary schools. They had no complaints about the police and fire services. Indeed, it was township police chief Bob Ryland who was a bit testy when he learned that a school principal had not called the police when it was discovered that two children brought guns to school. However, when a call came from any school to the police, it received top priority in order of response. The township police were also regularly on the scene to monitor traffic safety before and after school.

The township performed one very critical task on behalf of the school district. The township assessed the value of property that was in the township and the school district, and they issued tax bills to the township residents—bills that covered township, county, water district, and school taxes. The township also collected the taxes, and the township treasurer promptly transferred the school tax money to the treasurer of the school district. The township never even thought about playing games with the money. While the township passed tax money out to other entities, they were also the recipient of 25% of the sales tax revenues that the state collected in the township. This money first went to the state treasury, and then it was transferred to the township. Without warning or notice the state decided one day that it would send the money to local governments quarterly rather than monthly—although most had already figured their budget spending plans on the basis of monthly infusions of sales tax money. Even then, the checks would often come up to a week late. The cash-strapped state was playing an old public finance game of holding on to someone else’s dollar for as long as it could in order to maximize its bank interest. When money came late from the state, it never came with interest. The township transferred school district tax collections to the school district immediately as received into an account that the township could continue to monitor, but was also immediately accessible by the school district. If a taxpayer paid taxes early, the school district received the full advantage of the early payment, including any extra interest the money received while being held in a bank account. The school district was openly appreciative of the fact that the township never remotely considered playing games with its money.

The Eastman Township officials, led by Supervisor Curtis Palmer, Clerk Len Manchester, and Treasurer Don Voorhies, had also pledged that the bulk of the year’s federal neighborhood development funds would go to support housing rehabilitation and recreation programs revolving about an elementary school that served the poorest children in the Greater Grand River School District. The programs were based at the local school.

Overall, most observers found that relationships between the township government and the school district were very good. They were tested during the second year of Curtis Palmer’s term of office as supervisor of Eastman Township.

Palmer got along very well with Manchester and Voorhies. All were elected at large, while five council members were elected from wards. All eight served together as the legislative board of the township, with Palmer being chairman of the board. The board had to approve all expenditures made by the township. All purchases had to be presented as appropriation agenda items for action by the entire board.

Treasurer Voorhies was in his final term of office. He was approaching his 70th birthday. He had served the township well for over 25 years, 10 as a board member, and nearly 16 as treasurer. He had been an accountant before becoming township treasurer. Clerk Manchester was the main spark plug who kept the township government running. He had been the owner of a retail store before selling it to his brother and taking over as clerk the decade before. Supervisor Palmer was on leave from a position as a school teacher.

Palmer and Manchester were very respectful and sympathetic toward Voorhies’s concern that the township-owned cemetery was nearly filled up. It was the only cemetery in the township. Voorhies had always expressed the desire that he and his wife could rest always near their friends and family in Eastman Township.

One day Voorhies came into Manchester’s office with a look of happiness and excitement on his face. He said, “Call Palmer in here now.” When Palmer arrived, Voorhies read an announcement he had just received from the school district. The school district was having a surplus land sale. He said, “You know, they have a parcel of land that is right next to my church on Mallard Road. It’s the land that goes right up to the woods. That would be a dandy place for a cemetery.”

Palmer and Manchester agreed. Voorhies told them that they would have to act quickly. He said the notice of the sale was dated 3 days before, but it just came in the mail. It said the sale would be an auction of sealed bids, and they had to be submitted by the next day. The township board was not meeting until the next Tuesday evening. Manchester said he would send the assessor out to measure the parcel and judge its other possible uses and to put a value on it based upon values of other land in the immediate area.

The assessor came back and said if he had to assess the land he would say it had a market value of $20,000. The supervisor, clerk, and treasurer talked it over and agreed that it would be safe to submit a bid for $18,000, which they did. It turned out that they did bid a bit high as only one other party wanted the land, and he was willing to pay only $12,000. But they wanted it, and they needed it, and they got it. The township was almost the owner of a parcel of land where it could build a cemetery, near a church, in the shade of adjacent woods.

There was one little detail that the three had to finesse. The board had not approved the purchase, and it was not meeting for 4 days. That was good because the open meetings law required 3 days’ notice for an agenda item. The item of discussing new lands for a cemetery and taking appropriate action was put on the agenda.

The item was at the bottom of the agenda, as it was the last item added. The board sat through 2½ hours of discussion about a liquor license renewal and three minor zoning changes that were uncontested but had to be subjected to a review of plans and charts presented by attorneys.

When the issue of a cemetery came up, all were in a conciliatory mood. Palmer said he and the clerk, Manchester, had been thinking that it was time to explore the cemetery situation in the township. All the board members and the treasurer nodded approval. Palmer then said that they were going to search for a parcel of land in the township, and they were going to start with surplus lands available from the school district. Several of the parcels looked like they had possibilities. They would like to have prior approval to consider making bids on the lands. Again, there were nods of approval.

Palmer was about to request a motion to vote on the matter, when council member Thad Van Dusen, who was also a member of Treasurer Voorhies’s church, said, “I sure hope you are not thinking about that parcel of school land up on Mallard Road next to my church.” Palmer said that was one of the parcels on the list, so he would be happy to have Thad’s opinion about it.

Board member Van Dusen offered that the township would certainly not want to consider that piece of land for a cemetery. He suggested that it had so many rocks in it that a grave digger could devote his entire career to getting ready for one funeral and burial. Palmer thanked him for his comments, and said they would certainly be concerned about soil conditions. Palmer paused and said that perhaps they could move to new business. There being none, he asked for a motion for adjournment.

After appropriate niceties that went along with the close of each township meeting, Palmer winked at Manchester, Manchester whispered to Voorhies, and the three retreated for a quick moment in private reflection. Palmer suggested sending the maintenance crew over to the land first thing in the morning. All agreed. They would meet again when the crew returned. And so it was as Van Dusen had told them. The crew said they couldn’t get a shovel fully into the soil anywhere before it hit a rock. The land simply could not be used as a cemetery.

The three officials sat in disbelief shaking their heads. Then Manchester said, “Look, School Superintendent Guinn is my neighbor. We did a barbeque at his house last week. He knows we look after the interests of the schools. I’ll put the egg on my face. We got to get out of this.”

And so with years of goodwill in his briefcase, Manchester carried the news to the school district that the township had to back down on a deal that they had made in good faith. Manchester reported back that he really felt small, but that the superintendent and his property manager, scowled and then sort of smiled. They let Manchester know that they would have land sales in the future, and they made it clear that the township owed them one.

Manchester shook their hands and agreed. “You are 100% right on that.” The school officials also said they would not report any notice of the township’s bid, that they would just disregard it and give the other bidder the option to buy the land if he wanted it.

When Manchester reported back to Palmer and Voorhies, the three agreed that they didn’t have to post a notice to the public on their actions, either. From that day until the day Voorhies left office in retirement and Palmer returned to teaching, not a word of the matter came up at township hall.

Questions

  • While it was a violation of township purchasing rules to make a bid on land without prior approval, was it morally wrong to do so, given an accepted view that they needed land for the purpose indicated?

  • Was it a violation of law to make the bid, in that the actual purchase would have to follow formal action by the township board?

  • Should Palmer have revealed the actions that he, Manchester, and Voorhies (all township officers) had taken to other board members?

  • Should the school district have been aware that the township wanted the land for a cemetery, and that the land did not have proper soil to be a cemetery? If school officials knew so, was it ethical for them to have honored the township bid for the land?

  • Should the school officials have supported the township in its embarrassing moment by allowing the matter to be private and to strike the official bid of the township from their public records?

  • Was this case anything like the Louisiana Purchase? President Jefferson sent an envoy to France to discuss the purchase of the port of New Orleans. The envoy returned to Jefferson telling him he had committed the United States to the purchase of the whole Louisiana Territory for over $15 million. This turned out to be one of the greatest purchases in U.S. history. Was it an immoral action?

  • Was the Louisiana Purchase illegal? Consider that Jefferson took the matter to Congress and Congress actually appropriated the $15 million for the purchase in the proper manner, albeit a commitment had been made before.

 

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