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Ishpeming council at odds over attorney pay/contract

Bonnie Hoff, city attorney, city of Ishpeming

ISHPEMING — With new city manager Craig Cugini set to take the reins in February, controversy over the city attorney position continues to haunt the Ishpeming City Council into the new year.

Councilors unanimously approved a 3% raise effective Jan. 1 for all non-union full-time city employees including the finance director, treasurer, assistant to the city manager and police chief, as well as regular part-time employees, which include the front office assistant, code enforcement/rental inspector, zoning administrator, two library clerks and the volunteer firefighter and their command staff.

The motion was made with the condition that members of the council be provided with information that outlines the fiscal effects of the raises. The increase mirrors a raise negotiated into one-year contracts with the union employees that work in the city.

“In my current role, I have witnessed these hard-working employees and believe they deserve the same compensation as other city employees,” a Wednesday memo from Ishpeming Interim City Manager Steve Snowaert states.

City Councilwoman Lindsay Bean made a motion to include Ishpeming City Attorney Bonnie Hoff as one of the employees receiving a 3% raise, which “died for lack of support,” Mayor Mike Tonkin said.

“She’s the only one, as we just discussed in detail,” Bean said. “She is the only one aside from summer students and seasonal workers who would not receive a raise. I don’t see how we can fairly not give a raise.”

Councilman Jason Chapman, who was absent and excused from Wednesday’s meeting, contacted The Mining Journal by phone on Friday.

“I feel that her work merits a raise, and I believe that everyone should be treated with dignity and equality and I don’t see that happening with Bonnie not getting a raise,” Chapman said.

Chapman and Councilman Pat Scanlon were appointed to a committee in December to meet with Hoff and provide updates to the rest of the council about ongoing legal projects with the city.

Through research and spending time with Hoff and other city staff, Chapman said he believes the city “needs” an attorney like Hoff,

“I have went through her work and went through her logs and after averaging out her salary and her benefits and she is making $30 or less an hour. Every city needs a city attorney, and we have a city attorney (who) is passionate about her city,” Chapman said. “The hours have increased over the last three years. She has gone from 30 hours per month to most weeks working between 28 and 40 hours per week. That is not because she has chosen to, it is because she was given work. There was no choice but to have Bonnie handle them because she had to.”

Scanlon, who stepped down from the committee appointed to review Hoff’s work during Wednesday’s meeting, said he resigned from the position for several reasons that he declined to list during a phone interview Friday.

“I have concerns and I felt it was in the best interest of the city that I step back from the postion,” Scanlon said.

During Wednesday’s meeting Scanlon told the council that “everything is going south with the attorney,” and cast the sole “no” vote on a motion to form a mayor-appointed subcommittee to look into the attorney’s contract and rate of pay.

“I am not going to vote in favor of anything regarding the attorney until we get back to ground zero,” Scanlon told the council. “We never had trouble like this before. The attorney reported to the city manager but worked for the city council and it was ‘x’ hours and this was your work assignment. And, the whole thing — and I am not blaming Bonnie or anyone — but the whole thing is like a three-ring circus. And the last thing we need to do is add more fuel to the fire.”

Tonkin cautioned the council about doing what he perceived to be the city manager’s job.

“You are micromanaging the system by doing this,” Tonkin said. “That’s where a lot of this stuff is falling apart is because we are not following the direction. And my goal for this year is to follow the blue book (city charter.) I would like to see us start following this little blue book right to the letter. We have strayed away from it far too many times. It is time to hit the reset button and start over again. Because we don’t need to be bickering about this amongst ourselves about things that should be taken care of by a good city manager.”

Claudia Demarest, a city resident who has been a vocal opponent of the city’s arrangement with Hoff, expressed concerns during public comment about “city charter violations” and Hoff’s rate of pay.

“Who in their right mind thinks that Ishpeming, with a population of 6,500 residents, needs a full-time city attorney,” Demarest said. “Marquette doesn’t have one, doesn’t need one, so why does Ishpeming? We don’t. The attorney is costing the city over $86,000 in wages and fringe benefits.”

She said Hoff had not appointed a substitute attorney who could serve in her absence, as required by the city charter.

In an email Friday, Hoff said a substitute had been named twice during her tenure, but she has not had need for one to date.

“Kevin Koch was my substitute attorney, per the Charter requirement, Section 5.11(f) of the Charter, until his retirement. This appointment was made by letter dated February 4, 2015.” Hoff said. “After Mr. Koch retired, I appointed Bruce Houghton as my substitute attorney. This appointment was made by letter dated July 13, 2018.”

Meeting minutes from March 2015 and July 2018 confirm that the council approved those appointments.

Research conducted by The Mining Journal in December shows that attorney services are varied depending on the municipality.

Research showed that the city of Marquette, with a population of 20,000, pays $17,340 per month to retain Ron Keefe, an attorney with the firm of Kendricks, Bordeau, Keefe Seavoy and Larsen, PC; Marquette Township, with a population of about 4,000 people, retains the firm of Benzinger, Cotant and Menkes at a cost of $119 per hour; Marquette Law PLLC represents Marquette County under a two-year contract at a cost of $145,000 in 2019 and $150,000 in 2020, and the firm provides some office hours onsite, officials said; and the city of Negaunee, with a population of 4,556, retains the firm of O’Dea, Nordeen, Pickens and Burink, P.C for $2,000 per month for 20 hours of service with a billable rate of $125 per hour after that.

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is lbowers@miningjournal.net.

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