How small Michigan town lost its government for 10 months

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Hesperia — Meetings of the Hesperia Village Council tend to be staid affairs, lightly attended with drab discussions of municipal minutiae.

But a meeting last month was anything but ordinary.

This was a homecoming, a reunion, a celebration.

It was the council’s first meeting since May. After a 10-month absence, the government was back in session, President Mike Farber presiding.

Hesperia Village Councilmember Jim Smith listens during a council meeting. The Hesperia Town Council met for the first time in 10 months on March 26, 2020, in Hesperia, Michigan.

“Holy cow, it's kind of amazing," he said. "We can actually do something."

The shutdown began when four of the council’s seven members resigned or refused to attend meetings, depriving the board of a quorum, which is needed to hold a meeting.

For nearly a year, the village ground to a halt with city hall’s actions limited to rudimentary tasks.

The matter was resolved in March when a local judge ruled the three resignations didn’t have to be accepted at a council meeting to go into effect. That reduced the size of the council, meaning three members now constituted a quorum.

The council hastily convened March 16, appointing three new members.

J.R. Derks, one of the three trustees who had resigned, criticized the ruling by Judge Robert Springstead, saying it violated state law. He was mulling an appeal but said it would take a long time to overturn the decision.

Derks said the boycott was done to limit the actions of Farber, whom he accused of abusing power.

“Farber isn’t following the rules, and he knows it,” Derks said. “It’s malfeasance, misfeasance. You name it, he’s done it.”

The judge’s ruling allowed the council to return just in time for spring — and the coronavirus. Three days after the council became whole, it shut down city hall because of the pandemic.

Councilmember Jackie Slocum listens and takes notes during the council meeting.

A town on hold

Hesperia was down on its luck long before the shuttering of its council.

Once stately Victorian homes show signs of wear. The downtown shopping district is dotted with vacant storefronts.

The small town, with 940 residents, sits 50 miles north of Grand Rapids.

A marijuana dispensary was supposed to be a salve to the ailing community, providing jobs and licensing fees to the government, drawing visitors and possible customers for other businesses.

But the pot shop was on hold. It was waiting for the village to pass an ordinance regulating its operation when the council went into its lengthy recess.

Chuck Yob, a former Republican National Committee member who is developing the dispensary, had grown weary after sitting on his $300,000 investment for 15 months. He praised Farber but criticized the former council majority.

Councilmember Dan Herin listens during the council meeting.

“Small towns are like this. I’ve dealt with them over the years,” said the longtime pol. “This one was worse than usual.”

The dispensary wasn’t the only thing on standstill.

The village needed to hire a new attorney, pave some roads, tear down blighted homes and tackle the master plan.

It also had hoped to collect overdue water bills by placing the growing debt on residents’ taxes.

None of it got done.

“The people we elected didn’t do their jobs. Shame on them,” resident Karen Hren said.

Farber ran the village day to day but was limited to actions that preserved residents’ safety and welfare, such as ensuring their continued access to water and sewer service.

Also, he couldn’t spend more than $2,500 on any action.

Hesperia Antique & Curio, 147 N. Division Avenue, in Hesperia.

'Hostage' village

Hesperia is less than a square mile but sits in two townships and two counties. It’s further split by a river.

With all those divisions, maybe the council was destined to be divided, too.

Three residents who accused Farber of abusing his authority as president joined the board in 2018 and aligned with a fourth trustee. Despite forming a majority, the quartet said the president continued to impose his will on the council.

Councilmember Joyce McDonald listens during the council meeting.

They said he hired people, paid bills and entered contracts without council approval. During meetings, he disregarded parliamentary procedure to prevent them from taking action, they said.

Mike Maynard, one of the new council members, said Farber and two trustees did whatever they wanted.

“No winning with them,” he wrote on Facebook last year. “Just keep hitting your head against the wall.”

Maynard didn’t return phone calls or text messages.

The dispute may come down to two men and their distaste for each other — Farber and Derks, a former village president.

Derks described Farber as power-hungry. Farber said Derks was duplicitous.

Hesperia's Village Clerk Vicki Burrell takes minutes during the council meeting.

“He’s a hell of a salesman,” Farber said. “He’ll sell you a bucket of crap, and, if you go to him to complain, you’ll probably end up with a second one.”

After several months of squabbling, the four trustees stopped attending meetings and three eventually submitted resignations. State law requires such notices to be “made to the council,” but, because of the lack of quorum, the council wasn’t able to accept them.

When Farber and two trustees filed a lawsuit to declare the resignations valid in January, Derks and another trustee tried to rescind their notices. But the judge said they couldn’t.

Derks said the boycott was the only way to slow Farber’s actions.

But others said Derks and the other three trustees put their own interests in front of the community’s.

“It felt like they were holding the village hostage,” Trustee Joyce McDonald said.

A sign welcomes people to Herperia.

Swimming upstream

As the White River flows through Hesperia, the water cascades over a two-foot concrete wall near a small dam.

Every fall, salmon, swimming upstream to spawn, leap over the wall only to reach the dam, which is too high to surmount. Despite the herculean effort, the fish just wash back over the wall.

Farber and his supporters know just how the salmon feel.

To get council meetings restarted, they sought help from the county, state Legislature, Michigan Municipal League, attorney general and governor.

They used recalls, a lawsuit, new state legislation, even a downtown demonstration with chocolate chip cookies.

“I was angry council members would be so irresponsible,” said Christine Turple, whose family founded Hesperia and ran a hardware store for 105 years. “They were elected to work for the village, not for their own personal interests.”

But the group’s efforts to resume council meetings was rebuffed at every turn.

Turple and other residents gathered enough signatures to hold a recall of Derks, but he then submitted his resignation, which the county said made a vote unnecessary.

They then tried to recall Trustee Mike Maynard, who hasn’t resigned and hasn’t attended a meeting since March 2019.

But their petitions were rejected because they referred to “Mike” Maynard and the paperwork they filed with the county used “Michael.”

State Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, proposed a law that would allow councils to compel members to attend meetings. If they refused, they could be guilty of neglect of duty, which could lead to the governor removing them.

Councilmember Sara Walker listens to Council President Michael Farber.

'We got a quorum'

The council didn’t waste much time returning to action.

After the judge’s ruling on a Friday, the board assembled Monday to appoint three new members. The greenhorns had been regular attendees of council meetings, already distinguishing them from their predecessors.

The board met again the following week — sans Maynard — to hold a public hearing on the yearly budget.

For 10 months, meetings had been called to order, the Pledge of Allegiance cited, the roll call called, and, with no quorum, the sessions adjourned.

After the roll call last month, Farber let out a little yelp.

“Yoo-hoo, we got a quorum,” he said.

After 10 months of slumber, government was wiping the sleep from its eyes and restoring order among the populace.

Among those welcoming back the council were their most loyal followers, residents who seldom miss a meeting or a chance to comment on them. Gadflies are as much a part of democracy as elections.

Bonnie Robinson, 78, said she likes learning what’s happening in the community and offering a suggestion or two about how to make it better.

She continued to attend meetings long after the four trustees stopped coming. She finally gave up when session after session ended as soon as they began.

Hesperia's dam attracts fish and fishermen alike.

She plans to return as soon as she recovers from blood flow problems in her left arm.

“It will make me happy,” she said. “I miss it. We need to start doing something with our village or we won’t have one.”

The council had hoped to tackle a year’s worth of projects at its meeting last week. The original agenda called for it to accept the minutes of 14 meetings, 12 of which lasted less than two minutes.

But the unfinished business will have to remain unfinished a little longer.

Because of COVID-19 fears, the council shortened the last meeting to just passing the yearly budget.

For McDonald, just having a meeting at all was a victory.

“It’s a wonderful feeling,” she said. “It was frustrating not being able to meet. I’m just glad it’s over.”