Running for St. Clair County Drain Commissioner
I grew up in the City of Yale where my parents were both school teachers. My father also operated a machine and tool company there. My mother grew up on a farm on the outskirts of Albion, Michigan and she came to Yale as a teacher. My father’s paternal ancestors had settled on a farm in Columbus Township, St. Clair County, in 1845. His mother’s family, the Lockes, had settled in Berlin Township in a log cabin beside the Belle River in 1840. Frederick Locke was Supervisor of Berlin Township circa 1846-1848. I was raised as a Republican in Yale and in fact one of my relatives was Jacob Merritt Howard, who helped write the founding platform of the Republican Party in Jackson, Michigan and as a U.S. Senator worked closely with President Lincoln in drafting and passing the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery.
My parents had a cabin up north in Michigan and I spent a lot of time there as a youth, fishing, hunting, and rambling in the woods. As a child, I also fished and canoed and played along Mill Creek, which flows through Yale. I was a Boy Scout in Yale Troop 132 and achieved the rank of Eagle. From these experiences, I learned to understand and value nature.
I’ve lived most of my life in Yale, though I’ve also lived in Clay Township and in Williamston, near Lansing. Following high school, I went to Albion College, where I obtained a Bachelor’s Degree as an English Major and interned for a semester in New York City.
In 1989, I moved back to my family home in Yale and decided to run for Mayor. I was always interested in politics and had done a lot of complaining about things in Letters to the Editor, so I decided to run for an elected office and see what it was really like from the inside. I was elected and it was an eye-opening experience. I was amazed at how small the city’s budget was because most of the houses in town were older, many citizens were retired, and there was little industry, so the tax base was very limited. All the new, higher-valued houses were being built outside the city limits. It gave me insight into the difficult job of a local government official. Eventually, I was able to start several new programs to improve Yale and I encouraged the City Council members to work together despite their different political views.
Just after I was elected Mayor, the swampy area between Yale and Capac was proposed as one of three potential sites for a low level nuclear waste dump. I worked with a citizens’ group, Don’t Waste Michigan Site #2, to protest the waste dump plans. Eventually, all three sites were eliminated from consideration because they had significant wetlands. Soon after that, though, a Mill Creek dredging project was proposed by the Drain Commissioners of St. Clair and Lapeer Counties to improve the drainage of the area between Yale and Capac, and many people feared it was planned so that the nuclear waste dump could still be located there.
I co-founded the Mill Creek Coalition to oppose the dredging project. It was composed of people who opposed the nuclear waste dump, small-scale farmers and other landowners who didn’t want to be taxed for the $3 million dollar project they saw as unnecessary, environmentalists who didn’t want to see the natural part of Mill Creek turned into a huge drainage channel, and citizens in Yale who recognized there would be increased flooding in Yale if the creek upstream from them was widened and deepened for larger, faster flows. However, a few special interests in Lapeer County and western St. Clair County who would benefit from the project (at little cost to themselves) continued to push for the project, and the battle continued for years, even after I became Drain Commissioner in 1997.
Because Mill Creek flows between Lapeer and St. Clair Counties, it was managed by a three-person Intercounty Drainage Board, composed of the Drain Commissioners of both counties and a representative of the Michigan Department of Agriculture. In my attempts to scale back the project I was outvoted 2-1 every time. Finally, after many twists and turns, three lawsuits, and studies by five different engineering firms, a compromise project was agreed upon in 2006, after the Townships of Lynn, Brockway, and Emmett, and the City of Yale, joined me in a lawsuit against the other two members of the Intercounty Drainage Board. The compromise project involved the removal of log jams and beaver dams that were plugging up the creek, as well as dredging in some areas where necessary. It was a common-sense approach that improved the drainage in the upper part of the watershed where it was needed, while preserving the natural character of Mill Creek in the downstream areas near Yale; and it saved the taxpayers at least $1 million.
I had first been elected Mayor of Yale as a Republican, but when I ran for re-election, I ran as an Independent, because I was increasingly disillusioned with the national Republican Party. I lost that election running as an Independent. In 1992, I decided to run for Drain Commissioner after the Mill Creek Coalition lost its first lawsuit to stop the Mill Creek dredging project. The 18-year incumbent was a Republican, so I decided to run as a Democrat. I lost that election, too, and didn’t plan to run for anything again. But in 1995, with the Mill Creek battle still going on, I ran for Mayor of Yale as a Democrat and won. Then in 1996, I decided to run again for Drain Commissioner and this time I won.
It was also an eye-opening experience to become the county’s Drain Commissioner. The housing boom had just started and I eventually discovered that development was taking place on wetlands and floodplains all around the county. I had assumed that the State was enforcing wetland and floodplain laws, but that was not the case. We were far from regional DNR headquarters and enforcement was not being supported by Governor Engler’s administration. There was also a great deal of flooding throughout the county, not just because of development in our floodplains and wetlands, but also because heavy rainstorms seemed to be more frequent. I counted at least six 100-year storms in various parts of the county during the 12 years I was Drain Commissioner.
To deal with these problems, I implemented strict rules for development that included restrictions on building in floodplains and wetlands without proper permits, and requirements for stormwater detention basins designed to handle 100-year storms rather than just 10-year storms as was required previously. I made quite a few enemies with these new requirements, but I felt it was the right thing to do on behalf of all the citizens of the county. I also found that the county drains had not been very well maintained for many years, so I started new maintenance programs, including using Community Service Workers and jail trustees to help clean out trees and log jams from the drains at little cost. Some drains had trees growing in the bottom of them that were 16 inches in diameter! There were also many crucial drain projects that had not been undertaken in the past. I was deluged with petitions for new drains and restoration of old drains. I did my best to come up with innovative and common-sense solutions to drainage problems.
I also became very involved in water quality issues in the county. We were having frequent closures of our beaches because of contamination with E. coli bacteria. There were many sources of sewage being discharged directly into the county drains, creeks and road ditches, which eventually polluted the beaches. I worked with the county health and planning departments to obtain grants to address the problems. We formed the Blue Water Task Force on Water Quality as one of the county’s first programs to try to reduce pollution in our waters. We obtained grants to inspect all our watercourses and storm drains for failing septic systems and direct discharges of sewage from old buildings and homes. I also obtained grants and low-interest loans to build sewage treatment systems for the communities of Avoca and Emmett for wastewater that had previously been discharged untreated into Mill Creek and the Pine River, watercourses that are frequently fished and kayaked.
In 2008, I decided not to run for Drain Commissioner again. The Mill Creek situation had been taken care of, water quality issues were being addressed, and I thought it was time to let someone else do the job. In 2009, I went to work for Huron Consultants in Port Huron, a civil and environmental engineering firm. There I helped with the design of some county drain projects, with environmental permitting, with grant writing for municipalities, and conducted environmental site assessments for due diligence in property transactions. Eventually, the company moved to Lapeer and changed its name to Alliance Consultants in 2019. As of April 28, 2020, I am no longer working for Alliance Consultants. The current St. Clair County Drain Commissioner, Bob Wiley, pressured the company’s owner to permanently lay me off because I had announced I was running for Drain Commissioner against him.
Submitted by Fred Fuller
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