Fewer feathers ruffled in Tawas City chicken scandal

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Tawas City — The Chicken Lady got herself elected to the city council. Mr. Universe wants to join her. And poultry is still persona non grata in the city — unless it’s dinner.

It’s the latest doings in what the local paper called the Great Chicken Scandal of 2014.

A young couple’s attempt to raise chickens last August led to their arrest, the forced resignation of the mayor and an investigation by the Michigan State Police.

Since then, the criminal charges have been dropped, one of the council members who pressured Mayor Kane Kelly to quit has been recalled, and a second council member may be ousted, too.

And who replaced the recalled councilman? Theresa Hurst, who, along with hubby Phil, started the kerfuffle in the first place by trying to raise chickens.

Theresa Hurst is seen, Thursday June 11, 2015, in front of the Tawas City Hall in Tawas City. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)

“It’s ironic,” said Councilman Dave Schantz. “What goes around comes around.”

Hurst, 28, hasn’t given up her hopes of bringing chickens to this lakefront resort in northern Michigan.

On July 7, the city Planning Commission will discuss Hurst’s proposed ordinance that would allow residents to raise the spindly legged creatures.

A city survey of residents in February found strong feelings for and against the birds.

“Stop the madness,” wrote one resident.

“Would you want a clucking chicken farm next to your home,” wrote former city manager Ken Huber.

In The People of State of Michigan v. Theresa Marie Hurst, aka the Chicken Lady, she and Phil Hurst were charged in August with violating a city ordinance that forbade chickens in residential areas.

Warrants were issued for their arrest. The misdemeanor is punishable by up to a $500 fine and 90 days in jail.

After news accounts about the criminal case, the city agreed to defer the charges for a year. If the Hursts don’t violate the ordinance for 12 months, the charges will be dropped.

“I’m glad that justice prevailed,” said Theresa Hurst.

But that wasn’t the end of the Chicken Scandal.

Kelly began a recall campaign against Dave Dickman, one of two council members who met with him privately to encourage him to resign.

During the secret meeting, City Attorney Ken Myles told Kelly he could be charged with public malfeasance for trying to help the Hursts without consulting the rest of the council.

In Michigan, a recall election must include a candidate to replace the officeholder.

Chickens belonging to Theresa Hurst and her family come in to their shelter, Thursday June 11, 2015, on a nearby farm in Tawas City. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)

Kelly, an amateur bodybuilder, was going to run but bowed out when Hurst expressed interest. He plans to run if a second recall effort — against Janel Walmsley, the second council member in the secret meeting — is successful.

“People are tired of back-door politics,” said Kelly.

During the recall election, the Iosco County News Herald chided Dickman for his role in the secret meeting, and endorsed the political neophyte Hurst over the nine-year councilman.

State police investigated the meeting but concluded it didn’t violate the state’s open meetings law.

But the electorate wasn’t as forgiving. In the May election, Dickman was soundly defeated 266 to 128.

In an interview earlier this month, Dickman said he didn’t take out radio ads or campaign door-to-door the way Hurst did.

But what hurt most of all was the paper’s endorsement of his opponent, he said.

“If that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is,” he said. “The council I was part of did a lot of good things. They can’t take that away from me.”

Dickman said he wasn’t bitter but relieved. As a councilman in a small town, he served on the police board and the utility authority and was chairman of the zoning board of appeals.

Now someone else can do those jobs, he said.

A subdued response

Unlike the arrest and recall, the proposed ordinance allowing chickens has been a big ho-hum.

When the city asked residents what they thought by sending surveys to 1,207 registered voters, only 324 returned them.

The returns favored the birds by a 169-113 margin. The other surveys weren’t filled out properly.

The planning commission formed a committee to study the issue but its meetings have drawn few people.

A confab at city hall earlier this month drew two people, with just one of them speaking.

Resident Leonard Burdek told the committee his parents had taught him that when you get a new place, you do two things — plant a garden and raise chickens.

And Burdek, 71, has done just that in Detroit, Utica, Sterling Heights and, illegally, in Tawas City.

“I have more of a problem with my neighbor’s dogs barking,” he said.

He said he sees chickens as pets, which is the same way he views snakes.

Debating chickens as pets

Work on the proposed ordinance has been painfully slow, say supporters.

In forming the committee in October, the planning commission asked it to learn about similar ordinances in other municipalities.

The committee finally finished the task at its meeting this month. But Hurst, who is on the committee, had already done much of the research before the committee ever started.

“It’s a slow-moving train,” she said.

When the committee presents its findings to the planning commission in July, it will include four pages of Hurst’s research about other cities’ ordinances, including Ann Arbor, Bay City, Traverse City, Boyne City and Empire.

Once the planning commission studies the matter, it will make a recommendation to the city council about whether chickens should be allowed in the city.

During the city survey, some residents worried the ordinance would lead to other animals being allowed in town, like guinea hens and pot-bellied pigs. Others said that’s exactly what they hope will happen.

Resident Don Rospierski fretted that chickens don’t act like pets.

“They do whatever they want,” he wrote on the survey.

Of course, the same could be said about cats.

Speaking of felines, a woman said the city should be more concerned about cats, which kill birds and leave nasty deposits in her flower garden.

Others said the whole thing was a big to-do about nothing.