TRDDA chair’s commitment to city questioned prior to his reappointment

Andrew George canvasses for Bernie Sanders in March 2020. (Photo provided)

Mayor, city manager come to George’s defense

Three Rivers City Commissioners Clayton Lyczynski and Alison Haigh questioned whether Three Rivers Downtown Development Authority Chair Andrew George should be reappointed during Tuesday’s commission meeting. Lyczynski cited George’s involvement in a suit filed against the city concerning a petition to place a marijuana ordinance on last November’s ballot, questioning George’s “integrity” and “desire to do what’s best for the city.”

“What’s the protocol or would we remove anybody from that list or recommend somebody not be on that list if we question their integrity or their ability to serve or their desire to do what’s best for the city if we know they have filed lawsuits against the city and stuff like that? Would that be a reason to bring up an exception as to why we wouldn’t approve someone?” Lyczynski asked Mayor Tom Lowry on Tuesday.

“I would interested in anybody’s feedback on how they felt about Andrew George being part of the DDA since he was the person leading the lawsuit against the city in reference to the last election, trying to get something on the ballot.”

Lowry said George was “the petition getter,” but he wasn’t in charge of that process, which is factually accurate as George did not “sue the city.” A group he was employed by sued the city in an attempt to get a measure on the November 2020 ballot. In recent years the Three Rivers City Commission has voted to prohibit both medicinal and recreational marijuana businesses from operating within city limits. However, MRTMA (Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marihuana Act) does allow individuals to “petition to initiate an ordinance to provide for the number of marihuana establishments allowed within a municipality,” which is what George and the company he was representing were attempting to do. 

Lyczynski said George worked hand-in-hand with Jobs for Michigan Communities, the ballot question committee that filed suit against former City Clerk Melissa Bliss and the City of Three Rivers. Lowry responded, “That’s not a lawsuit against the city per se, that’s a petition to get something on the ballot.”

Haigh said she had “feelings against (George being reappointed) also.” “It’s more of do we really want that on one of our boards, I mean the potential of, basically he was part of the group that potentially hurt the city, how is that going to help us by keeping this person there? When that board should be in the best interest of helping the city and downtown.”

Lowry said he doesn’t have a problem with George or his involvement with the suit in question. “He’s already presented himself, he’s already demonstrated his commitment to the downtown — he’s been chair of the committee of the DDA for over two years — he’s committed to downtown and he lives downtown,” Lowry said.

“I don’t see a problem with a citizen who came to us at one point, and asked us to consider an issue — and we didn’t agree with him as a group — he then got a job with a company that did this in 20 communities to force it on the ballot. I don’t have a problem with a citizen that says, ‘I asked you to do something—’ or ‘I had my opinion and you are completely on the opposite end, and I’m going to do what I can legally to give other citizens an opportunity to weigh in.’ I don’t have a problem with that process, that’s what democracy is about. I think we’re punitive if we punish him for doing that.”

Commissioner Carolyn McNary said George “is a strong individual who works very hard to do things in the city that create unity,” and while he may have had a difference in opinion with the commission, he shouldn’t be penalized for that. McNary said she supports his reappointment to the board, and will “support him going forward.”

Lowry reminded the commission that the lawsuit between Jobs for Michigan Communities and the city has since been settled, and the commission promised to place the measure on the ballot “for the citizens to decide this issue, and the fact that we have remained committed to our promise really says, ‘you can’t punish the man now just because he disagreed with us initially.'” Lowry added that punishing George for trying to do something the commission has already promised to do “doesn’t send a good message.”

Lyczynski said he didn’t have a problem with putting the measure on the ballot but rather “the way (George) went about it, the timing of it, how it was presented, and how there was legal action taken against the city because it wasn’t done the way he wanted when he wanted it due to a technicality.”

Lycynski said he’s spent a lot of time with George, has attended “the unity things Carolyn mentioned or alluded to,” and while “for the most part I do believe he has the city’s best interest in mind,” he wanted more input from the commission about George’s reappointment because “he had sued the city but then he’s being asked to serve in the best interest of the city.”

City Attorney J. Patrick O’Malley said plainly, “Andrew George did not sue the city.”

“Clearly in the lawsuit (George) is named as one of the persons who circulated petitions, the fact that he’s a circulator does not mean that he violated any trust with the city or didn’t have a right to do that,” O’Malley said.

“Jobs for Michigan, which is the plaintiff in the lawsuit, and the lawsuit was about whether or not the city clerk rightfully rejected the petition because it did not meet the requirements of the state election code. And ultimately that was the decision of the (St. Joseph County) Circuit Court, and that was the case that was ultimately dismissed. To my knowledge the lawsuit was not funded by Mr. George, and he had little to do with the matter or the decision to initiate the lawsuit.”

City Manager Joe Bippus said overall George does “a good job for the city” and the downtown, and while he and George may not always agree, George is willing to listen to points of view opposite of his own.

“It’s no secret that Andrew and I have been on opposite ends of the spectrum on a number of issues but I do believe the majority of things regarding the city we agree on, as far as trying to help the downtown and make it a better place,” Bippus said. “Andrew is willing to listen to different points of view, and will often change his mind with new input, new information. I think overall he does do a good job for the city, he does do a good job for the city, and that’s why I recommended him again.”

In a statement sent to Watershed Voice via email Tuesday evening, George said the lawsuit was filed as a “last option,” and was a “completely appropriate” form of holding city officials accountable:

“As Chairman of the Three Rivers Downtown Development Authority (TRDDA), I am proud to say that we have taken incredible strides, but I can let the TRDDA’s merits speak for themselves. This is to say that, I have done more than enough to prove my abilities to lead this organization and with proven results. However, Commissioner Lyczynski’s concerns didn’t involve my abilities within the TRDDA.

“Far too often, our government officials, whether elected or appointed, fall into a sense of complacency and even unjustifiable defense of the office or municipality they represent. I am proud to unashamedly hold my city officials accountable EVERYTIME. I will continue to do so. Entering into a lawsuit was the last option and that lawsuit, to my knowledge, has been settled. I truly believe that the residents of Three Rivers would agree that this form of accountability was completely appropriate.

“I will continue my due diligence in improving our beautiful downtown district, and I will also continue to hold my local officials accountable, in the best interest of the City of Three Rivers.”

George was ultimately appointed to another term on the TRDDA Board set to expire on March 1, 2025.

Alek Haak-Frost is executive editor of Watershed Voice.