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Court rejects Alma recall petition language; petitioners say they’ll try again

Brett Dahlberg
Attorney Zack Everitt, center, stands outside the Gratiot County courthouse with two of the three Alma city commissioners (Roxann Hall, left, and Nick Piccolo, right) targeted by recall petitions over their support for a youth refugee shelter.

A circuit court judge has rejected the language of petitions filed to recall three Alma city commissioners who voted in favor of rezoning to allow a nursing home to be converted to a shelter for young refugees.

Michigan state law requires that a recall petition’s wording be “factual,” but in a ruling on Friday, circuit court Judge Shannon Schlegel said the language in the Alma petitions “is not factual, is not accurate.”

The Gratiot County Elections Commission voted to approve the language – and its factuality – in September, but attorney Zack Everitt, representing the three commissioners who would lose their seats if the recall succeeds, filed an appeal.

“This is not a case where reasonable minds can differ,” he told Schlegel in court, calling the wording of the petitions “farcical, imaginary, made up.”

Everitt’s objection to the petitions’ language centered on two words: “overruling” and “denial.”

Alma’s planning commission recommended against the refugee shelter over the summer after a wrenching debate in the mid-Michigan city. Just over a month later, a majority of the full city commission voted to approve it.

The vote was 4-2, but only three commissioners – Roxann Harrington, Nick Piccolo and Audra Stahl – are targeted by the recall petitions. The other commissioner who voted in favor of the shelter, Roger Allman, is in the first year of his term and, under state law, cannot be recalled.

The recall petitions, filed the day after the full commission vote, said city commissioners would be recalled “for overruling … the planning commission denial” of rezoning.

“I think it’s pretty clear that’s what they did,” said Chuck Murphy, the chair of the Gratiot County Republican Party. Judge Schlegel was unconvinced.

The planning commission’s recommendation was not a ruling or a denial, Schlegel found. “There’s no finality there. There’s no appeals process.” As a result, she said, “there was no overruling.”

No one spoke in court in favor of the petition’s language.

After the ruling, Murphy said opponents of the refugee shelter would be filing petitions with new wording based on phrasing that Everitt provided in court as an example of what would have been, in his view, acceptably factual.

Brett joined WCMU in February, 2021, as a general assignment reporter. He was previously the health reporter at WXXI Public Broadcasting in Rochester, N.Y., and has filed stories for National Public Radio, IEEE Spectrum, The Village Voice and other outlets.
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