(New Buffalo, MI) - Another attempt to recall the mayor of New Buffalo has failed to clear the first hurdle.
The Berrien County Election Board on May 31st failed to approve the language on a petition seeking to recall John Humphrey over the dramatic increase in water and sewer bills.
The board felt the language stating the reason was not clear enough for voters to understand when deciding whether to remove Humphrey prior to the end of his four-year term.
The petition stated Humphrey should be recalled because of his decision at a city council meeting on June 20th, 2022 where he voted to approve updating the schedule of water and sewer rates effective August 1st, 2022.
The board felt the language was not factual because it sought to recall Humphrey as council member and mayor.
Humphrey was elected to the city council in November of 2020 and later appointed mayor by a majority of the city council.
The board also cited typos in the language that make it unclear.
“I thought they did a thorough job in review the petition and language based on state statute,” Humphrey said.
Humphrey said the language on the petition also made it seem as if he acted alone in raising the water and sewer rates.
He said the vote by the city council was unanimous after following the standard process used in decision making.
“We showed a tremendous amount of due diligence in how this decision was made. To act like this was an individual action or something I did by myself or took lightly is completely untrue,” he said.
During the hearing, Humphrey presented language he believed was more well-rounded for voters to make an educated decision on a petition.
His proposed language states the increase in water and sewer fees was a unanimous decision by the city council and came at the recommendation of the city manager and the city’s financial advisors to comply with the city’s legal requirements as a member of the Galien River Sanitary District Sewer Authority.
The election board did not respond to the language he suggested.
Humphrey said most of the rate hike is from increasing the ready to serve fee on sewer service from $14 to $60.
He said the increase was needed because rates hadn’t been raised enough since the late 1990’s to keep up with the city’s share of the rising cost for operating and maintaining the waste water treatment plant.
New Buffalo, New Buffalo Township, Chikaming Township, Lake Township and Bridgman form the Galien River Sanitary District, which operates and maintains the plant also serving Weesaw Township.
Humphrey said the city’s fund used for plant operation and maintenance had more than $300,000 in red ink annually in recent years because of inflation outpacing the amount collected in sewer fees.
Property tax revenue was allocated to cover the yearly sewer fund deficits, he said.
Humphrey said the sewer fund now has a surplus, which frees up property tax dollars once servicing the deficit to go toward roads and other projects in the city.
The recall petition was filed by New Buffalo resident and business owner John Taylor.
Taylor said chances are the language will be revised on another recall petition in hopes of gaining approval from the election board.
“I think we’ll have another run at it. I believe that to be the case,” he said.
Election board approval of language on any recall petition in Berrien County opens the door to a signature drive.
A required number of signatures from registered voters in a community where a recall is sought must be obtained by petitioners and validated by the election board for a special election to be called.
Taylor said Humphrey did not formally act alone in deciding to raise water and sewer rates but it’s his agenda a majority of the city council seems determined to put through ever since he was elected.
He said a ban on additional short term rentals in residential areas is one of Humphrey’s agenda items the council adopted last year. Taylor helped obtain signatures in a recall attempt of Humphrey last year over his support of the new the short term rental cap.
The drive fell short when the Berrien County Clerk’s Office threw out enough signatures to cause the amount to fall below the 219 verified signatures required for a special election.
Taylor said a lot of people, including business owners, are struggling from increases of 50-percent of more on their bi-monthly utility bills. He said a better decision would have been to phase in the increase over a several year period to prepare water and sewer customers now left suffering from “sticker shock.”
Time is running out for opponents of Humphrey to have him removed from office early. In Michigan, elected officials in Michigan cannot be the target of a recall during their first year and final year in office. Humphrey will begin the final year of his current term in November, and has not decided whether to seek reelection.
Taylor said a lot of citizens are upset with Humphrey and his “cavalier attitude” on decision making despite how the public feels.
“There’s a fairly large ground swell of volunteers who want to see this go forward,” Taylor said.