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Village sues township over petition

By Judy Reed

They share a municipal office building. They built a library together. And they both were caught off guard when two residents of the village of Sand Lake collected signatures and filed a petition with Nelson Township asking for the disincorporation of the village—something neither municipality wants. Now, in a move that could stop the question from being on the ballot, the Village of Sand Lake has filed a lawsuit against Nelson Township and their clerk, Laura Hoffman, contesting the sufficiency of the petition.

Sand Lake Village Manager Kirk Thielke said that according to MCL74.18A(4), the township clerk is required to verify the signatures and determine the sufficiency of the petition. “We’re saying that it’s not enough to consider the signatures. You also must consider whether it’s facially defective,” he said.

The crux of the matter comes in the wording of the last phrase of the petition. “We, the undersigned qualified and registered electors, residents of the Village of Sand Lake, in the County of Kent, State of Michigan, respectfully petition the disincorporation of the Village, thereby transferring all its usages to the Township of Nelson.”

Thielke noted that they couldn’t transfer all usages to the township, which makes the petition defective. “Services such as roads, lights, and water all have a special assessment,” he said.

Village lawyers Jeffrey Sluggett and Steven Stapleton, of Law Weathers, filed the lawsuit in Kent County’s 17th Circuit Court. It says that by law, the streets and other public rights-of-way currently operated and maintained by the Village can only be transferred to the Kent County Road Commission, contrary to the proposition submitted to signers of the petition. It also noted that the city’s water and sewer system could not be transferred to the township, but would need to be transferred to the Kent County Department of Public Works, or discontinued all together. Police duties would also need to transfer to the Kent County Sheriff’s Department.

The lawsuit further states that the proposed election on this issue (in August) would produce irreparable harm to the Village in three ways. One, it would interfere with the Village’s ability to obtain financing and grants for Village operations and capital improvements (negotiations with the U.S. Department of Rural Development); second, debt on various bonds and assessments would be accelerated and applied against Village properties; and third, if the election is held and passed before the court rules, and they find the petition was defective, the disincorporation would need to be reversed through legal and administrative efforts.

Nelson Township Supervisor Glen Armstrong said he has seen the lawsuit, but has not yet heard back from the township attorney on how they should respond to it. “Once I do, I’ll then check with the board and see what they want to do,” said Armstrong.

The Village of Sand Lake is also waiting to see what they will do. “It’s our hope that they are not going to challenge it,” said Thielke. “Rather than contest it let the judge decide.”

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