From the village manager to his fellow elected officials on the Cass City council, Tom Herron is calling for change, hoping to stir things up and fix what he views as a plethora of wrongs with regard to Cass City’s leadership.
Elected to the Cass City Village Council in November, Herron says he’s just getting started and making good on campaign promises to promote change needed to move the village forward.
Herron details many of his concerns in a letter to the editor that appears in today’s issue of The Advertiser (see page A4) – taking issue with everything from mishandled dealings with representatives of the Dairy Farmers of America to Cass City’s continued involvement with the Tuscola Area Airport Authority to council meetings that are too short and don’t involve the public enough.
Herron is calling for as many people as possible to show up at the next Cass City Village Council meeting on Jan. 30 and either speak up or just be there in support of change – specifically to the way Village Manager Peter Cristiano and his fellow council members conduct business and hold themselves accountable.
“We’ve got so many issues over there right now,” Herron told The Advertiser. “Everybody’s mad.”
“I received the most votes because I said I would work for change,” he said. “This is a start…and I’m not stopping.”
“I intend to fix it. I don’t care what I have to do to stop it,” Herron said. “I got the whole town behind me. If I got a couple council members mad at me, too bad.”
Not so fast, says Cristiano.
Cristiano essentially says Herron is picking and choosing certain aspects of Cass City’s operations then twisting them in an attempt to paint Cristiano and the village in a bad light.
Further, he says Herron received the most votes in the election only because his name is well-known – not because he is an initiator of change.
“He is hell-bent on getting me out of this job,” Cristiano told The Advertiser. “That’s all this is.”
Herron has been in business for 52 years and built many buildings in Tuscola County that are recognizable to most, such as Walbro in Cass City.
He also has been building residential developments in Cass City since 1972. The Country View, Hill Crest, and Northwood Estates subdivisions were all Herron’s projects. He’s been involved civically, too, including serving eight years as president of the Cass City Chamber of Commerce.
“I put more money on the Cass City tax rolls than anyone in its history,” Herron said. “I’m not bragging. It’s just a fact.”
Herron was elected to the Cass City council in November with the most votes. He said he was motivated to run because of what he was seeing – or not seeing – being done.
“I love that town, and I’m tired of seeing what’s happening,” he said.
“I’m pushing for change. The council members are friends of mine, but you can’t mix business and friendship,” Herron said.
Herron is particularly critical of Cristiano, and says a big part of the problem is that council members “love the guy.”
“And they let him run this thing, and run this thing, and this is what we’ve got…a mess,” Herron said.
Not even a month into the job, Herron says, he started having a lot of questions.
In a letter to the editor that appears in today’s issue of The Advertiser (see page A4), Herron raises several issues that he says the community needs to make priorities. He said it has been reviewed by his attorney, representatives of the the Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), and “quite a few other people” to make sure it’s right.
The reason DFA is involved, he said, is that the most specific allegations with the potential to impact the village in the biggest way involve DFA.
Herron alleges Cristiano overpromised – specifically, with regard to DFA using the village’s wastewater treatment plant.
Herron says DFA’s use of the treatment plant “proved impossible without substantial, additional investment. Ultimately, DFA had to spend a substantial amount to build their own waste water treatment plant.”
But the process already was well underway. Herron alleges about $950,000 in engineering and other costs was essentially wasted since a plan to sell debt bonds to cover the costs never saw the light of day.
The mishandling didn’t end there, Herron says.
Per an agreement with the village, DFA was to pay $475 a month for sewer costs associated with just three toilets. Instead, DFA was being charged $10,000 a month – a mistake that somehow wasn’t caught until DFA had been overcharged $250,000.
Herron says “Cristiano finally produced a check for $153,000 signed only by himself and the village clerk with no apparent council approval.”
The bottom line, he said, is that the mishandling could jeopardize a DFA expansion previously announced and could be an “enormous boost” for Cass City.
“DFA wants to be a part of this community and a good neighbor,” Herron writes in his letter. “This situation has created great concerns with the MEDC in Lansing where Cass City has the reputation that is not a good place to do business.”
Herron has other questions, too.
• He wonders why the 2017 Cass City budget was – in his eyes – rushed through.
• He also questions why Cass City remains a part of the Tuscola Area Airport Authority. That costs the village nearly $7,300 a year.
• Further, Herron said he takes issue with Cass City paying Cristiano $128,000 (including benefits) annually.
• He questions whether or not the village manager is a full-time job.
• Herron says Cristiano isn’t needed to help get a planned grocery store through the development process with fully capable members of the Cass City Downtown Development Authority and the Tuscola County Economic Development Corp., which itself is led by Steve Erickson, executive director – and also a member of the Cass City council.
• Herron even took issue with the fact that Cristiano told The Advertiser he was 73 when he is actually 83. Cristiano admits the fib with a smile, recounting how a family member always told him to tell people he was 10 years younger.
• And Herron takes issue with short meetings, and said he feels much has been decided and talked about already.
“There can be no more 15-20 minute council meetings because we must conduct our business in a way that informs all the citizens of our community,” Herron wrote. He later told The Advertiser “There’s nothing made public.”
Herron said he wants as many people to attend the next Cass City council meeting on Jan. 30. The hope, he said, it to hold elected officials accountable.
“It’s important we get people at the meeting and stir things up,” Herron said.
Cristiano has served as Cass City village manager since 2005.
Cristiano relocated to the Thumb region post-retirement from the private sector in metro Detroit.
His professional background includes serving as vice president of corporate development for the former Capital Cities Communications, which would eventually go on to become Disney-ABC Television Group through a series of mergers and acquisitions that began in 1985.
He also started several tech companies and was one of the founders of the Oakland County Economic Development Corp. (now rebranded as AdvantageOakland) and Oakland County Business Finance Corp.
Before going into the private sector, Cristiano worked for the city of Southfield for more than 20 years starting in 1960 and in roles ranging from parks and recreation director and deputy city manager to eventually serving on the Southfield City Council for 15 years.
In the early 2000s, he moved to Caseville after retiring.
However, in 2005, Cass City was searching for a village manager and having difficulty finding suitable candidates, he said.
Cristiano said he stepped up, offering to take on the position and help the village “for three months, six months, whatever it took.”
The Advertiser gave Cristiano an opportunity to respond to all of the allegations against him from Herron.
When first asked about those specific to DFA, he put his head back to look at the ceiling and sighed heavily.
Cristiano points out that he spent eight years on bringing DFA to Cass City, including flying around the country to visit other existing locations to best understand what was needed. He points out that Herron wasn’t involved in any of the DFA planning.
Further, Cristiano says that the village didn’t mislead DFA, but that it was the other way around.
DFA said it would produce a certain amount of waste water, said Cristiano, but it turned out to be “a tremendously different number that the system couldn’t handle.” He couldn’t provide details on any of the figures.
After a series of negotiations between an attorney for Cass City and DFA, the DFA ended up deciding to build its own waste water treatment plant on-site. Cass City would lose nearly $1 million in costs associated with the deal.
“That treatment facility cost them $10 million, I think,” Cristiano said.
Further, he said DFA has refused to put in meters for its water usage.
“They refuse to put in meters,” Cristiano said. “To this day they haven’t put in meters.”
Cristiano admits Cass City’s charging DFA $10,000 a month for sewer service instead of $475 was a mistake, but that “it wasn’t intentional and wasn’t anything I had anything to do with.”
With regard to the $153,000 check issued by Cass City to DFA, Cristiano said it’s commonplace for him to cut checks when residents and businesses are due a refund – and that this particular refund just happened to be a big one.
“That isn’t where you’re spending money…that’s a mistake on a water bill,” he said.
He also is quick to point out that Cass City bent over backward to help DFA, including giving the organization more than 20 acres of land, a 15-year tax abatement, covering partial costs of roads, and helped with realignment of a drain close to the property.
“We weren’t supposed to pay for that, but we did,” Cristiano said.
The status of a reported expansion is unknown, Cristiano said, adding that he is not involved in any active discussions.
Cristiano scoffs at the notion that the issues with regard to DFA’s sewer and water bills has damaged the village’s reputation.
He calls the Tuscola Area Airport a “very important part of the county” and points out how companies in Cass City benefit from it.
And he is adamant that he doesn’t plan to stay beyond however long it takes to see Cass City Market through to completion, expected to happen later this year. The $5.8 million grocery store is in the works for downtown Cass City, and requires working with as many as 10 different organizations – a job Cristiano says can’t easily be done by anyone.
With regard to his pay and benefits, Cristiano said he isn’t sure if the $128,000 figure is accurate, but does know that he hasn’t received a raise in 10 years. He added that he works 50 hours a week on average.
When asked about his work in Cass City, Cristiano said he’s proud of what’s been done under his leadership.
“I’ve been involved in government for 30 or 40 years,” he said. “I came here to make a contribution. I think there are many things that we’ve accomplished.”
Cristiano said he has never faced the kind of criticism that he is through Herron, but that he has come to realize it’s all part of the job.
“You ask me how it makes me feel? It’s not unusual to have someone who dislikes you,” Cristiano said, adding that he’ll “leave when the council tells me.”
The Advertiser tried to reach Cass City Village President Carl Palmateer, but the phone was answered and hung up every time.
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org