OSCODA – The June 10 meeting of the Oscoda Township Board of Trustees included a tense talk regarding donation law.
The discussion resulted from a request by the Oscoda-AuSable Chamber of Commerce, which anticipates hosting a nonprofit roundtable on Oct. 9.
“We are seeking approval for use of Warrior Pavilion as a venue for the event, as well as a waiver of dues,” stated executive director Rose Fulton, of the pavilion located within Ken Ratliff Memorial Park.
She advised that the program would target nonprofit (current and potential) board members as a resource for local civic clubs and services.
“The Non Profit Round Table committee has been actively working to promote and encourage organizations that serve our community. As a not-for-profit organization with a tight budget, your time and consideration to our mission is greatly appreciated,” Fulton stated in a letter to township officials.
“Does this meet our policy to waiver?” asked Treasurer Jaimie McGuire.
“It’s a nonprofit, roundtable committee,” answered Superintendent Dave Schaeffer.
“Does it benefit the community as a whole?” questioned Supervisor Aaron Weed. “In other words, would this fall within the realm of donation law?”
Trustee Jim Baier made a motion to waive the fee and allow the group to utilize the pavilion.
“My only question is, is it enough of a benefit to the entire community to make it worth this donation?” asked Trustee William Palmer.
Baier said if the chamber of commerce of a town is not a good thing for the public, then he can’t think of what is. But he added that he agreed their good is probably weighted a bit more toward the business community.
Palmer pointed out that this isn’t a chamber of commerce event, but a roundtable function for nonprofits.
Such as the Oscoda Lions Club, McGuire said. “So that is a community benefit, because they do a lot.”
“Anything can be justified as a benefit to the entire community. Does it pass the test, if it were put in front of a judge?” Weed asked.
“And do we have a policy on this topic yet, or not?” questioned Trustee Timothy Cummings.
“We do have a policy for waiving the fee,” McGuire answered.
She supported the motion made by Baier, and also pointed out that the event is going to be held for several hours on a weekday – which would only be a charge of $100 for use of the pavilion.
McGuire said the nonprofit groups do a lot for the community and if the event encourages people to check out the Warrior Pavilion, then the more the merrier.
As for the policy on waiving fees, it was explained that the township can allow this if it is for a nonprofit which benefits the entire community and is also open to the public, which McGuire said is the case in this situation.
“If the state attorney general comes down on us for doing this, contact me; I’ll pay the $100,” Baier remarked.
Weed said that, having thoroughly researched donation law, he would be voting no on the motion because he doesn’t want to risk the liability to the township.
When it came time for roll call, the motion failed in a 3-4 vote, with Baier, McGuire and Clerk John Nordeen in favor. Opposed were Weed, Palmer, Cummings and Trustee Martin Gayeski.
It was during the public comment portion of the meeting when Oscoda resident and planning commission member Robert Tasior said he was disappointed with the decision on the fee waiver.
“You said you didn’t know if it qualified. A nonprofit roundtable is for every nonprofit in our community. That’s what the roundtable is for. If that doesn’t qualify, I don’t know what does,” he expressed.
The issue continued when it was time for board member comments, with Weed saying that out of all the research he has conducted into municipal law, one thing which has held up very clear for 150 years in Michigan is donation law.
“The municipality is not allowed to make a donation,” he said, citing an example where one community wanted to have the lights on the ball field lit up for Little League games.
“And it was even brought up to a vote of the people, put on the ballot and, overwhelmingly, the people voted to allow these lights to be on for these ball games,” he explained. “But it still got overturned by a judge because it was considered a donation; the consumption of electricity was considered a donation and, therefore, not allowed.”
Weed said he doesn’t make these rules, and that he’s just trying to mitigate any township liability in such situations.
“So was the municipality punished by this, or did they just lose in court?” Baier asked.
“Is there a difference?” Weed questioned, to which Baier said yes.
“What’s that difference?” Weed asked.
“A fine; go to jail. I mean, if the judge says you can’t do that, okay. But did he say you’re going to have a fine of $5,000 or something like that?” Baier said. “There is a major difference.”
“How does that difference equate to how we are supposed to uphold the law?” Weed replied.
“That’s your interpretation of the law,” Baier said, adding that Weed quotes laws often.
Baier said he doesn’t know how correct Weed’s interpretations are, and that he’s not willing to take it at face value that the interpretations are fact.
“Five years ago those examples were brought forward to you in a packet,” according to Weed.
Baier said his point was that, if a judge says a municipality can’t do something, then fine; move on and don’t do it again. “My question to you was, was there some financial penalty? I’m guessing no.”
“Is there case law the other way?” McGuire questioned, to which Weed said there is a lot of case law regarding donation law.
Cummings said that, while he understood the point, he was a little shocked to hear Baier say it didn’t matter whether it was right or wrong, unless there was a penalty.
“I didn’t say it doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong,” Baier maintained.
“I’m paraphrasing. But why don’t you just say it now then, Jim? So is there a problem if there isn’t a fine or imprisonment? Is it wrong or isn’t it?” Cummings asked.
“Well, that would be a test kind of thing,” Baier said.
“It’s not a test, it’s a question to you – is it or isn’t it?” Cummings responded.
“If I’m convinced it is definitely against the law...” Baier began, before Cummings interjected.
“If somebody in the court says it’s wrong and they don’t end up fining you or put you in jail, is it wrong? In your mind, is it wrong?” he stressed.
“My opinion would be...” Nordeen started, before Cummings told him to stay out of it, adding, “Is it wrong, Jim?”
“That’s enough,” McGuire said.
“Let’s end this damn meeting,” Cummings remarked.
“We’re trying to,” said Nordeen.
A motion to adjourn was then offered, bringing the 3½-hour-long meeting to a close. (Other topics discussed during the gathering are also summarized in this week’s publication).