Questions Surrounding Public Engagement Dominate County ARPA Discussion
By Beth Milligan | March 3, 2022
How and when the public will be able to weigh in on how Grand Traverse County should spend $18.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds dominated discussion among county commissioners Wednesday. A volunteer committee comprised of 11 leaders from different industry sectors has been assembled to advise commissioners on spending priorities and a process for soliciting public input, but committee meetings themselves have not been open to the public, prompting some commissioners to seek clarification on when public engagement would actually begin.
County Administrator Nate Alger and Tim Dempsey of Public Sector Consultants – a consulting firm hired by commissioners to guide them through the ARPA spending process – both fielded questions Wednesday after County Commissioner Betsy Coffia asked for an update on the advisory committee and questioned the need for the group to hold private meetings. Alger assembled the group to bring in a variety of expert community viewpoints on how best to spend federal funds, with members including Gregg Bird of Emergency Management, Warren Call of Traverse Connect, Nick Ceglarik of North Ed, Chris Hindbaugh of Addiction Treatment Services, Seth Johnson of United Way, Kevin Klein of Cherry Capital Airport, Tony Lentych of TC Housing Commission, Jason Slade of NMC, Sakura Takano of Rotary Charities, Jody Trietch of Boomerang Catapult, and Matt Wille of Munson Medical Center.
The committee has met twice – on February 9 and February 23 – and plans to soon recommend a process for collecting ideas from the public. Down the road, the committee will also likely “receive, review, and categorize proposals and then provide those proposals to the board of commissioners with recommendations on the proposals,” according to Alger. The committee is only advisory in nature, both Alger and Dempsey emphasized, with any actual decisions about spending to be made in public solely by county commissioners.
Alger said confusion over the group’s purpose arose when a reporter mistakenly posted that the committee’s meetings would be public. As an administrative working group, Alger said the group was legally able to meet privately and was doing so simply to create the “architecture” of a process that would then be carried out in public. Dempsey added that meeting privately gave the group the ability to talk candidly without worrying their comments would be “blasted” across social media out of context or that members would incur personal attacks from the public, citing the heated nature of many public meetings in the current political climate.
“It places a pretty big strain on volunteers, people who are not elected officials, who are not subject to the sort of intense public scrutiny that all of you are used to,” Dempsey said. He added that “robust public engagement” is planned to begin soon and that “all decisions will be in the public” regarding any ARPA spending. Dempsey also noted the committee was building up its expertise about ARPA rules, which are expected to be finalized April 1 and amount to over 400 pages of regulations on how funds can be spent. Making it clear to the public what types of proposals will qualify for ARPA funds or not will be an important part of the engagement process, Dempsey said. “There's sometimes this assumption that you can spend this money on anything that's out there, and that's not the case,” he said. “This is a finite resource. There are a lot of regulatory process-related issues tied to this money.”
Several commissioners said they were comfortable with the committee meeting privately for now and trusted that the group, staff, and consultants were moving toward launching a public engagement process. “This is a big deal, we all admit it's a big deal,” said Commissioner Darryl Nelson. “The characterization that this is being done in secret or in private is just wrong. Not one penny is going to be spent without the approval of this board…I think we have to trust that process. This is the architecture being set up.” Chair Rob Hentschel agreed, saying the county establishes work groups “all the time that are not (subject to) public meetings.” He said he was interested in seeing the committee’s recommendations, citing his personal desire to invest in infrastructure projects that would have long-term benefits for Grand Traverse County. “I like the path that we’re on,” he said. “When it comes to taking public input on ARPA dollars, the time will come and we will get lots of requests, and we will categorize them based on what this board decides in an open forum.”
Coffia said she would still prefer to open the committee meetings to the public, but since most other commissioners didn’t agree, she said she wouldn’t make a motion that would likely fail to change the process. Coffia instead urged staff and commissioners to pursue a “really thoughtful, robust public engagement process through all of this.” Alger said the advisory committee is meeting again next Wednesday, and that he expected that “some kind of public engagement process” will be in place after that meeting.
In the meantime, several organizations are taking a regional approach to ARPA spending and reaching out to nonprofits and other groups that may have programs or projects that qualify for funding to begin compiling a community list. Networks Northwest, Traverse Connect, Rotary Charities of Traverse City, and the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation are partnering with Public Sector Consultants to begin “identifying and sharing potential projects and programs that align with the region’s key economic, community, and environmental priorities,” according to a release. Organizations in the five-county region – including Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, and Leelanau counties – who meet financial and administrative criteria are invited to submit their projects online here.