Chicken fight ruffles feathers in Tawas City

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Tawas City — Meet Michigan's foulest criminals.

They're chickens, but not your ordinary poultry. These nine hens are threatening to topple the government of this northern Michigan hamlet.

A young couple's attempt to raise chickens led to their arrest, the resignation of the mayor and city manager, the possible recall of two City Council members, a Michigan State Police investigation and endless chicken jokes.

When Mayor Kane Kelly tried to help the couple, he was pressured to resign during a meeting that may have violated the state's open meetings law.

It's the Great Chicken Scandal of 2014, squawked the local paper.

"I can't get over how crazy and ridiculous this situation is," said Katherine Guilbault, a friend of the arrested couple.

Phil and Theresa Hurst are scheduled to appear Tuesday in District Court in Tawas City. They're charged with violating a city ordinance by raising chickens in a residential area.

The misdemeanor is punishable by up to a $500 fine and 90 days in jail.

The Hursts have kept their sense of humor during the clucking controversy.

Posting a photo of a person in a chicken suit on social media, Phil Hurst wrote, "Think I would get arrested if I wore this to court?"

He posted the photo on the Tawas Tattler, a Facebook page created in response to the controversy and makes continual fun of it.

Its profile picture is a headless chicken clutching a sign: "Don't panic."

As for the Tattler's namesake, Tawas City is a rural resort along Lake Huron with 1,800 residents.

As in other small towns, most residents know each other.

It was this picturesque, seemingly tranquil tableau that greeted the spindly legged interlopers in April.

The Hursts, who grew up on farms, wanted to raise the chickens as a source of healthy food. That is, dinner.

In June, they received a letter from the city saying the fowl weren't welcome. A city ordinance prohibits farm animals in residential areas.

The birds had apparently been spotted by a city worker surveying a drainage ditch near the home.

The letter, which gave the Hursts 14 days to comply with the law, said they could appeal the decision to the City Council.

On the 14th day, the couple asked for the council hearing. They told the city they no intention of getting rid of the chicks, believing the Michigan Right to Farm Act trumped city law.

"I'm not easily scared," said Theresa Hurst, 28. "I'm the kind of person to fight to the last breath. They definitely picked the wrong girl to bully like that."

The family didn't hear back from the city, not even a peep.

'What a fiasco'

In July, Hurst went to City Hall to pay her water bill and was waited on by Annge Horning, who had written the June letter.

In the small town, Horning is the zoning administrator, deputy clerk, deputy treasurer and office manager.

Asked the status of the hearing, Horning said the city attorney was handling the matter and would get in touch with the family, according to Hurst.

In August, 2½ months after the Hursts asked for a hearing, they received a reply. It was a phone call from the police chief saying he had a warrant for their arrest.

"What a fiasco," said Theresa Hurst. "I don't have the time or money for this."

After the 14-day deadline passed, Horning had visited the couple's property twice to take photos of the chickens to document the code violation, according to emails she sent city officials.

The Hursts were photographed and fingerprinted at the Iosco County Jail and then released on $300 bond.

Horning declined to comment but Councilman Carl Steinhurst said the Hursts should have removed the chickens while challenging the city's ruling.

"The ordinance has been on the books a long time," he said. "It's black and white. It says no chickens in a residential area."

After Horning's complaint referred to the family's "chicken yard" and "chicken farm," Theresa Hurst took to calling herself "the crazy chicken lady."

A change of heart

Right after the Aug. 26 arrest, the Hursts were contacted by Kelly, who had just become mayor.

Trying to resolve the matter, he encouraged the couple to remove the chickens and then approach the city about changing the ordinance.

Kelly, a bodybuilder who owns a local health club, said he kept City Manager Mark Moers abreast of the negotiations, but Moers repeatedly told him he wasn't interested in making a deal.

In September, when the Hursts took the hens to a friend's farm in nearby Wilber Township, Kelly told Moers the family was finally in compliance with the law.

Moers responded that if the couple pleaded guilty, the city wouldn't seek punishment, just an injunction to prevent the return of the chickens under the current ordinance, according to Kelly.

Kelly immediately forwarded Moers' statement to the Hursts and the Iosco County News-Herald.

"I was happy," he said. "We finally put the fire out. That's all I had wanted to do."

But during their arraignment a few days later, the Hursts scuttled the deal by pleading not guilty and saying they planned to hire an attorney.

The couple later said they didn't trust the city to keep its end of the bargain.

Moers declined to comment.

'Some serious trouble'

Two weeks after the Sept. 8 arraignment, Kelly said he received a call from Councilman Dave Dickman, who wanted to meet at City Hall.

Asked what the meeting was about, Dickman said "this and that," said Kelly.

When Kelly arrived, he was greeted by Dickman and Councilwoman Janel Walmsley, who were followed into a conference room by City Attorney Ken Myles.

"Do you know why you're here?" Myles asked Kelly, according to an account of the meeting by Kelly. "You're in some serious trouble."

The city attorney told the mayor he had embarrassed the city, that he had no business getting involved in the chicken case, that his job was making laws, not enforcing them.

By acting on his own, without council support, the mayor had committed mis- and malfeasance in public office and could face criminal charges, Myles said during the 30-minute meeting.

Myles told the mayor he could avoid all that by signing a letter the attorney slid across the table, said Kelly. It was the mayor's resignation, written by someone else.

Addressed to the city clerk, the missive doesn't mention the chicken controversy, instead attributing the mayor's departure to demands on his time.

"The city needs more attention than I am able to give at this time," it read.

After initially balking, Kelly said he signed his name.

Myles, Dickman and Walmsley all declined to comment.

Recall petitions planned

Kelly tried to rescind his resignation during a stormy council meeting earlier this month, but because it had been effective immediately, he wasn't able to do so.

Although the meeting was held on a workday morning, 80 people crowded into the small City Hall chambers and lobby to voice their support for the popular Kelly.

His attorney, Peter Jensen, told the council Kelly was only trying to help a resident.

"If that becomes the fulcrum for getting rid of somebody, you've missed the whole point of representative government," said Jensen.

A day after the Oct. 2 meeting, Moers submitted his resignation, effective Nov. 3. In the letter, Moers, who held the job for eight years, cited health and personal issues.

Also, Kelly filed a complaint with the state police, saying Dickman and Walmsley had violated the state Open Meetings Act. The law requires a quorum for elected officials to discuss public business.

The State Police investigator, Detective Sgt. Kellee Robinson, said she didn't know how long the probe would take.

Kelly's supporters will soon begin distributing petitions to hold an election to recall Dickman. Walmsley was appointed to the council in July, so she can't be recalled until next year.

"What goes around comes around," said Councilman Dave Schantz, who supports Kelly. "They've made this part of Michigan look like a joke."

Meanwhile the Hursts continue to peck away on a proposal that would allow chickens in the city under certain conditions.

Under the plan, no poultry would be killed for food within city limits, they said.

Anyone wishing to slaughter the birds could take them outside the city, where the Amish are happy to kill them for $2.50 apiece.