By Sterling McGinn

Columbus Township is facing an uncertain future. The five-member board, which governs the township of approximately 169 citizens, will have four vacant seats following the November election. Three seats include the positions of supervisor, treasurer, and clerk. So far, no interested participants have stepped forward leaving the current officials wondering about the fate of the township.

A rather heated meeting of the Columbus Township Board revolved around the matter with one item of lengthy discussion concerning the pending resignation of clerk Don Leech, which was approved effective April 30.

The meeting took place on Tuesday, March 12 at the Columbus Township Hall in McMillan.

Leech initially indicated his reason for resignation was his age, though later in the meeting he said that if he resigns, someone will be forced to step up and take the clerk position.
“I am quitting to help the township,” Leech said. “If the three of us stay here until November, and walk out the door, what are the odds that they are going to find three people really quick like that?”

The board was not in favor of Leech’s wish to resign before his term expired—primarily because Leech has only eight months left to serve and there is an election coming up.

“Someone has to run the election, and if we can’t find someone to do it, the board will shut down,” said trustee Emerson Smith.

“I think you are really letting down the constituents of this township who voted for you to fill this position with the expectation that you would be here for the full length of your term,” Supervisor Jeannie King told Leech.

Other members of the board not seeking re-election include Supervisor Jeannie King, Treasurer Kelly King, and Trustee Emerson Smith. They’ll remain in their positions until after the November election.

Veteran board member Ed Auge, who originally intended to re-run, resigned as a trustee earlier this year. Ed Stielstra was appointed to fill the remainder of Auge’s term, which expires in November. Stielstra plans to run for re-election for the seat.

According to Luce County Clerk Sharon Price, Columbus Township will have 45 days following Leech’s resignation to find a replacement before a special election will need to be held. If the special election is not conducted simultaneously with a scheduled election, the township will have to cover the cost. It is doubtful that the special election can take place during the August primary.

In conversations with the Bureau of Elections, Price was told that it is the responsibility of the current board to find replacements.

“The township needs to do due diligence to fill these positions,” Price said. “If no one runs, the state is going to step in, and the township will be liable for costs. It will not be cheap—the township will be charged for whoever has to fill these duties.”

Trustee Stielstra asked if there was anything the board could do to keep Leech in the position longer, but Leech declined.

The board voted to accept Leech’s resignation.

The board is bound by law to see that the statutory duties of the clerk are handled. Township attorney Craig Rolfe, who deals in township law, talked with King about having the clerk’s duties handled in Leech’s absence.

“The attorney has advised us that we have to put in place the ability to do business during the time we are short of a clerk,” Jeannie King said. “What he advised us to do is contact another clerk in another township to ask if they would be willing to contract with us to cover the election portion of the statutory duties.”

A board member or other suitable person could perform the non-election duties, including signing checks and taking meeting minutes, until an official clerk is appointed or elected. The board could also appoint the supervisor to sign checks in the absence of a clerk.

“We need to know going forward, if no one is identified and has accepted the appointment to the position, that we can continue doing business,” King said. “Otherwise, the doors to the town hall will be locked and everything will cease to function.”

The attorney prepared resolutions for the board to approve moving the matter forward.

Leech disagreed with the township attorney’s advice, which he thought was not legal. Leech reached out to the Michigan Township Association (MTA) regarding a legal direction the board should follow after his departure. The township attorney did not agree with MTA’s advice. The board ultimately voted to hire Evashevski Law Office in St. Ignace to receive a second opinion regarding how the board should operate after the clerk’s resignation. Treasurer Kelly King and Trustee Stielstra voted against the motion.

Columbus Township resident Laura Generou suggested advertising a special meeting for an event with refreshments or an open house to entice residents to come to a meeting and take interest in being on the board, and she said she said she would be willing to organize it.

In the meantime, the township is focused on finding replacements before other options would have to be implemented. They are continuing to advertise for board seats.