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Old issue sparks new debate in Bronson

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By Mark Scohier

Bronson continues to be haunted by its past.

The town, since about 10 years ago, has been steadily climbing its way out of a deep hole left by some of the people who were then entrusted with its care.

One-time mayor and council member Jamie Griffin was, in 2004, convicted of one count of grand theft and one count of scheming to defraud after state and local investigators discovered he'd been stealing from town coffers.

Griffin, according to authorities, admitted to stealing $200,000, part of which was meant to pay for expansion to the town's park and for fixing problems at the historic Jackson House. Prosecutors sought to put him away for two years, but a judge reduced his sentence to one year and a day, provided he pay back the $200,000.

Today, Griffin is a free man, and he's running for office again on the town council and can even be seen in the audience at most town meetings.

But some of the council members still have questions about what went down all those years ago.

The Jackson House, which now serves as headquarters for Bronson staff, continues to be a theme addressed at meetings, and it has been leading in many different directions.

In recent weeks, the council has been seeking to nail down the last few remaining easements needed to install a new sewer system. One easement owner, Mike Owens, has refused on grounds that the town still owes him money for work he did years ago refurbishing the Jackson House, according to town administration.

Town staff and those council members who were on the council back then, say Owens never had anything in writing and wasn't even supposed to be getting paid directly from the town because he was not the primary contractor. Yet, Owens was. And it's this that has a few town leaders confused.

Council members Berlon Weeks and Jason Kennedy, who were not on the council when the town was having its issues a decade or so ago, asked at the last meeting that Town Clerk Kelli Brettel look for as much information as she could find about the Jackson House renovation. Kennedy said he didn't understand why Owens was getting paid without being the project's main contractor. Weeks said he wanted clarification on whether or not Owens was really owed anything.

Brettel reported Monday night what she had found, though, she admitted, there were still a lot of gaps in the record of the project that started some time in 1998.

Still, in the end, the Jackson House cost about $602,000.

Weeks asked town Building and Zoning Director Bob Niffenegger why a specific piece of documentation about the Jackson House renovation contained no information other than a few illegible scribbles.

"How was this signed off on?" Weeks asked. "An entire application with absolutely nothing on it."

Weeks said that someone has to be accountable and that rules have to be consistent "across the board."

"Don't tell me my job!" Niffenegger responded, shortly before walking out of the meeting.

Griffin, who was in the audience, said no permits were pulled because it was a town job.

"Listen, somebody has to accept responsibility for it," Weeks said, clarifying in a later interview that there should at least be a record of what was done to make sure things were done properly and that the building's structure was sound. Inspections are done for a reason, Weeks said on the phone Tuesday morning. And there needs to be a record of that.

During the meeting, Council Member Aaron Edmondson accused Weeks of grilling Niffenegger because Weeks himself has been challenged on work that was done to his business.

"You have to be consistent in everything you do," Weeks said.

A woman from the audience asked if someone could again clarify the total amount spent on the Jackson House.

"Six-hundred two thousand (dollars)," Brettel said.

"Four-hundred forty-three thousand (dollars was) spent with no vote," Weeks said in response. "That's what you need to consider. We refuse to answer questions in this council about things that are wrong."

Jamie Griffin went to prison for the money that was taken from the town, Weeks said. "I'm sure there are other people that had their hands in it."

Weeks even suggested Griffin come forward and speak on the issue.

Council Member Beatrice Roberts and Mayor Franklin Schuler suggested the council move on.

In other matters:

Bronson could be in the market for another Community Development Block Grant worth up to $650,000 if state agencies approve an application submitted later this year. 

The council unanimously approved Fred Fox Enterprises Inc.’s request to move forward with the application process Monday night. Company employee David Fox told council members that a grant could potentially be awarded for projects aimed at revitalizing homes, neighborhoods, commercial sectors and for economic development.

The council also unanimously reinstated a citizen board to come up with ideas for projects. The council will have to approve any of the suggestions members come up with.

Town Public Works Director Jimmy Dunford said part of the town's sewer system was recently vandalized. Someone took floats out of a lift station, he said, causing capacitors to burn up as the station’s pumps ran without being regulated.

"We put up a game camera" to catch the culprits in the future, Dunford said, adding that the vandalism cost a total of about $750 to correct.