Opinion: Is Saline City Council Chasing Away Volunteers and Community Events?
Over the years, Saline City Council hasn’t exactly been hospitable to some of the people who stand before it at the podium in the city hall chambers.
Sometimes, it’s easy to justify. One understands raking a developer over the coals when they’re trying to flout the rules everyone else must follow.
But too often, it’s a volunteer trying to do that benefits our community.
The back-and-forths between council and Saline Main Street have been brutal at times since 2020. A younger me would have splashed some of the animus in the daily headlines.
COVID restrictions exacerbated the fault lines of our society right down to the town council level. In 2022, at long last, it finally seems clear to a majority of Americans that the worst of COVID is behind us. Hallelujah.
Main Street, however, still wanted to close down South Ann Arbor Street to help downtown businesses. Fire Chief Jason Sperle, citing the fire code, advised council against that. If you’re on city council, would you disagree? Look at downtown Holly, which was ravaged by a daytime fire.
Sperle was also recommending against closing South Ann Arbor Street for festivals, like Summerfest and Oktoberfest, and the weekly Salty Summer Sounds concert.
What a kick in the gut for people who plan these events. Not only for Main Street, which relies on Oktoberfest for fundraising throughout the year, but for all the people who enjoy these events. But again - look at downtown Holly. You don’t ignore your fire chief’s recommendations.
Our dedicated community volunteers persisted. The concerts continue every Thursday night on North Ann Arbor Street. They’re making plans for Oktoberfest and Summerfest.
And yet, council continues to nitpick at community organizers. Last week’s agenda packet included an Oktoberfest request to close a small portion of West Henry Street to allow room for admissions, an information booth and volunteer check-in since South Ann Arbor Street is no longer available. It was on the consent agenda - which means it was supposed to get rubber-stamped. Councillor Janet Dillon asked that it be removed from the consent agenda for more discussion.
Main Street volunteer and Oktoberfest organizer Rebecca Schneider could barely conceal what appeared to be exasperation with the line of questioning.
At what point are we simply going to chase away our Main Street volunteers - the ones who put in these hard hours - and lose these community events?
The problem wasn’t Dillon’s questions. The problem is that there seems to be an assumption that nobody on city staff asks these questions.
We saw the same thing with the Food Truck Rally planned for July 30 at Mill Pond Park. There was a line of questioning there about whether the rally was really a fundraiser or whether it was a marketing event for a real estate company. Is that council's purview? Later, on social media, Councillor Dean Girbach commented about the event being held to promote Andelina Farms sales, suggesting it was questionable to use a city park to promote the sale of homes in Saline Township.
Council’s concerns managed to increase the cost of the event by $250 - $250 that may have gone to Saline Area Social Service.
Why does council feel the need to get into the weeds on so many subjects? Perhaps Mayor Brian Marl sets the tone by working 25-30 hours a week from city hall - something that goes against the spirit of the city charter. But Mayor Marl is not the issue at the council table.
In my trips around town, I see the legacies of people who worked to bring this community together. I think of Taylor Jacobsen caring for the chickens at the Rentschler Farm. Out front of the library, I remember Leslee Niethammer joined by Howard and Kelven Braun at the unveiling of one of the statues. I think of Wayne Clements telling me old Saline stories while volunteering at the Depot Museum.
And I wonder. Are we losing the spirit of friendship and cooperation that made this town so appealing?