The Ely City Council voted 3-0 to accept the donation of trees to its animal shelter at its July 28 meeting. Council members Kurt Carson and Sam Hanson were absent from the meeting.
The proposal to plant the trees, all of which were donated to the city, became controversial after council members Bruce Setterstrom and Jolene Gardner put an end to the original plan when they demanded the proposal be brought before the entire council for approval. Setterstrom said the leaves from the trees would fall into the nearby recycling facility, creating issues that would have a detrimental effect on the sale of the cardboard and cans, a notion rejected by the town’s recyclers.
In a letter to the council, Tony Locke, president of JM Trucking Inc. and overseer of the city’s recycling, said he did not see any issue with tree leaves affecting the program.
“Blowing debris, whether leaves, dirt or other foreign objects, is a common factor that standard operating procedures will need to address,” Locke wrote.
Mayor Melody Van Camp had organized the donation of trees and labor from community members more than two weeks prior to the meeting, and in fact, a press release was put out by city officials asking for the donations, but Van Camp was forced to agendize the item after Setterstrom and Gardner’s complaints were made to city attorney Chuck Odgers.
At the meeting, resident Marietta Henry read a letter she had submitted to city officials, stating she had donated a tree in hopes of beautifying the animal control area and enhance the aesthetics of the city.
“Please consider the placement of this tree as a positive asset for the animal control facility,” Henry told the council.
Council gadfly George Chachas disagreed with the tree planting proponents, accusing the council of using a “shotgun approach” and comparing it to residents putting up stop signs and handicap signs at will.
“It needs to come to an open meeting,” Chachas’s said.
Deputy City Clerk Jennifer Lee read a letter submitted by Judi Bourbeau, who stated she and her husband were in favor of the city council accepting donations for the animal shelter. She wrote they had purchased nine trees for the shelter and had them delivered.
“We are also donating mesh to put over the dog’s outdoor habitat to help shelter them from the hot sun,” she wrote.
Bourbeau wrote she had expected the trees to be planted on July 12.
“What a shock and disappointment it was to learn that the planting of these trees had been delayed for at least two weeks,” she wrote. “It was heartbreaking to know that these dogs had two more weeks to suffer the 90 degree plus heat during the day with no shade.”
Bourbeau said she was even more heartbroken by the comment from a council member that there shouldn’t be any comforts provided to dogs when they are in jail.
“Even people in jail are afforded basic comforts,” she wrote. “And these dogs are not in the animal shelter because they are criminals that should be in jail. I would imagine that the majority of animals are in the shelter because, for one reason or another, they have lost their homes and/or loving owners through no fault of theirs.”
Bourbeau asked the council to show compassion to the animals and allow the project to go forward.
Lee read another letter submitted by Rob and Michelle Gelskey, also asking the council to accept the donated trees and mesh.
“It doesn’t sound like the leaves that fall from the trees in the fall will contaminate the recyclable materials that you will be collecting,” the letter stated.
The Gelskey’s said recycling was important but so was caring for “unwanted, unloved and discarded” animals. These animals do not have a voice and they rely on us to do the right thing,” they wrote. “Giving them some comfort during these hot months is one of those right things.”
They said the trees would also beautify the “ugly” landfill that many drive by while traveling Highway 93.
“The people of this community apparently care for these animals and are willing to donate these trees for their benefit,” the letter stated. “It would be so wrong for you not to utilize these donations.”
Setterstrom said he did not have a problem with trees being planted at the shelter but rather spending city money without council approval.
“An ad went out in the paper requesting trees, the council wasn’t notified and the excuse was everything was donated,” Setterstrom said. “That’s not true.”
Setterstrom then said when talking about using city parts to put in a sprinkler system, your spending city money and money would be spent in the future. He said when the city put the flag up on the hill, it didn’t cost the city any money or use any city labor, but now it had to be brought before the council because it is costing the city money because they had to pay for a new flag.
“We don’t know what the trees are going to cost in the future,” Setterstrom said.
He said the trees aren’t going to shade any dogs for a few years at least, but in a few years the cost of maintenance will fall on the city.
“If one gets diseased after 20 years and it has to come down, it is going to cost the city money and there are maintenance costs,” Setterstrom said. “My problem was something being done without council approval.”
Setterstrom then blamed a story in the July 22 Ely Times (Council members halt tree planting at animal shelter) that he said accused him of being against trees and that nothing in the article was true.
Setterstrom was quoted in that story as saying “he wasn’t against the trees” but the leaves from the trees would fall into the nearby recycling facility, which would mean the packed cardboard could be rejected by buyers.
“I was never against the trees,” he said. “I was against doing something without the council’s approval because it is an expense of the city’s money. Maybe not at first but at some point in time, it’s going to cost the city money.”
City Attorney Chuck Odgers, who had originally given the mayor his blessing to go forward with the project with the volunteers and donations she had collected, said even with the irrigation costs, the project was still far below the $5,000 threshold the council had approved to allow city administrator Bob Switzer to spend on projects without having to go to the council for permission.
Setterstrom then told Odgers he was wrong in that the money they had give Switzer to spend, was money to run the city.
“That doesn’t mean he can go out and buy 4,999 gallons of pink paint to paint city hall,” Setterstrom said. “He doesn’t have approval for that.”
Setterstrom said Switzer does have permission to spend $5,000 if a copier breaks down or there is some other emergency, but not to start new projects.
“Am I right or am I wrong?” Setterstrom asked Odgers. Does he have permission to spend $4,999 on a sports ticket because he has a hunch on a bet?”
Odgers said that a sports bet is outside the scope of his job.
Setterstrom argued that planting tree at the animal shelter was outside the scope of his job but Odgers said it wasn’t.
“The city administrator’s job is to put into action those policies that the city council puts into place,” Odgers said.
He said in this particular situation, there were people willing to volunteer to donate, there was no expense to the city council or the city, and that he didn’t see any problem with the mayor moving forward with the project. He said he gave the mayor the go ahead because he didn’t see anything wrong with the project, it wasn’t going to top the $5,000 threshold or take an extraordinary amount of staff labor or maintenance.
Setterstrom argued it was future costs that were the problem and that’s why it needed to be approved by the council.
“If that’s the case, then anybody with a good idea or good intentions that’s on the council, could just go out and do it without council approval,” Setterstrom said.
He argued he had to get council approval to put up the flag and allow the donation of park benches that line Aultman Street.
“The point is, when you start a new project, you should have to go to the council because you’re spending city money,” Setterstrom said.
Odgers said he disagreed, and then Setterstrom asked why he had to get permission from the council to buy flowers for the planters on city streets.
“In my opinion, you’re not comparing apples to apples,” Odgers said.
“Flowers and trees? Pretty close,” Setterstrom said.
“No, you’re talking about expending $1,700…” Odgers said.
“$500,” Setterstrom responded.
“Whatever it was,” Odgers said. “She’s not expending any city money based on what she represented to me.”
Odgers said the benches, despite being donated, would have to have council approval because they were on Aultman Street, which is a state highway. He said in this case, they were putting trees at a city facility that was already zoned and it was at no cost to the city.
Setterstrom fell back into the argument that it was costing the city money, then noted that the donation of a sprinkler system from the parks department was city money.
Van Camp responded that the sprinkler system was no longer available and Setterstrom said that was because he had stopped her. She said she had only asked if they had spare parts that could be used at the shelter.
“My thought was, if he had the stuff, I would go buy everything that we didn’t have,” Van Camp said.
Odgers said the discussion that he and the mayor had was focused on the idea that it was not going to cost the city any money. He told Setterstrom that he was explaining his analysis of the project according to the plans laid out to him by Van Camp.
“What you’re saying is that you want everything to come before the council,” Odgers said to Setterstrom.
“No,” Setterstrom said. “What I am asking you, Chuck, is it OK what happened? That the mayor doesn’t need council approval for new projects like that. Because if I’m wrong, I apologize.”
Odgers said, in his opinion, the mayor did not need council approval. Setterstrom then made a big show of apologizing to Van Camp for “asking” her to put it on the agenda, bringing it up and questioning her authority on making decisions like that.
“Accepted,” Van Camp said.
Odgers asked if he could finish making the point he had been trying to make and Setterstrom said, “No. Discussion’s over.”
Setterstrom said he was going to get a clarifying letter because he had been told the issue would have to be on the agenda, again arguing the flag, the benches and the flowers all had to be agendized.
“Now that I know that I was wrong, we can move forward with all these things without having to get council approval,” Setterstrom said.
Odgers kept trying to explain the difference between the other three projects and the project at the animal shelter, but Setterstrom kept saying he was wrong and repeatedly apologized.
“We don’t have to get permission from anyone,” he said. “If anything needs to be done, you’re allowed to do it without council permission. I understand that. I apologize.”
Gardner said she saw the point Setterstrom was trying to make about future costs but Odgers again tried to explain that was not part of the analysis he had made in approving Van Camp’s project.
“Why do you keep trying to explain, I apologized,” Setterstrom said to Odgers. “You don’t need permission anymore, I’m glad to find that out.”