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In which I Immerse Myself In Local Politics

(Cross posted to Chelsea Blog)

The chill in the air isn’t just from the change in seasons.

A Chelsea City Trustee has unleashed the first salvo in a public battle over… I’m not sure. But it sure sounds like some people don’t like each other.

Since the story broke in The Chelsea Standard, I’ll have to recap instead of linking.

Back in October, the City Council approved a lease (a link!) for a Ford Five Hundred from Palmer Ford for Mike Steklac, a car provided by the City to Mike in his capacity as City Manager. The approved lease payment was $291.11 per month. When Mike went to pick up the car, the salesman informed him that the offer the City had negotiated was no longer available. The new price was $662.43, a slight increase.

So Steklac went to Faist-Diesing Chevrolet and negotiated a deal for an Impala at around the same price as the Ford lease (actually, $40 less a year). When Steklac brought the new lease to the City Council for approval, City Council Trustee Jamie Bollinger pounced. Bollinger stated that he had spoken with Biff Weber, the owner of Palmer Ford, and indicated that Steklac should have discussed the discrepancy with management before leaving. Bollinger alleges that Steklac only waited 35 minutes before leaving Palmer Ford, “not allowing time for the dealership’s management to address the problem”. Steklac defended this by claiming that “Ford Motor Co. credit department would have ‘kicked back’ the lease if he had pursued it,” an incident, by the way, that Biff Weber felt compelled to apologize for.

But the real stinger came later. Bollinger “suggested Steklac’s behavior [of negotiating a new lease without discussing it with City Council] is emblematic of a larger problem with [his] job performance.” This claim was supported by City Trustee Jim Myles as well. Myles is up for election next week.

By the way, I should mention at this point that the new lease was unanimously approved.

Moving on, Bollinger then confronted Mayo Ann Feeney, who had defended Steklac. The Standard quotes Bollinger as saying “So you approve of (Steklac) going outside of the City Council’s decision?” There is no follow-up comment.And then, we get to the rub. Why is Bollinger so incensed with the lease not coming from Palmer Ford? “Bollinger said Monday that part of the reason he was displeased with Steklac was because Palmer Ford has done favors for the city in the past.” Such as? How about repainting a police cruiser at no cost and donating a vehicle hoist to the city. I did a quick search on Google and vehicle hoists run anywhere from $1600 to $2100 dollars for a basic model. Painting a police cruiser isn’t cheap, either.

Let’s step back a little bit and look this over thoroughly. First, who the hell at Palmer Ford decided to try and bilk the City for an extra $13,367.52? ($10,479.96 for the first three-year lease subtracted from the new quote for 36 months; $23,847.48.) Unless they’re pleading New Salesguy Syndrome, someone seriously dropped the ball. Especially for an organization who is so generous to the City.

Next, I’m not sure how this whole City-negotiated lease things works. Is the City Manager legally bound to take the lease, even if the stated price at closing isn’t the negotiated rate? Everyone better say no to that. Then I fail to see the issue with the City Manager, a person entrusted with, uh, managing the City, negotiating a car lease.

Bollinger's belabored point was that the lease Steklac brought to the Council wasn't the same lease they had approved. He has a point; Steklac didn't bring that back. However, what Steklac did bring back was a better deal. And, he did it on his own. We'll come back to that.

I also don’t put a whole lot of credence on the statements of a Trustee who appears to have a huge conflict of interest in the lease negotiation process at Palmer Ford. Things went kittywompas and he called the dealership owner? Does the Trustee expect to call Craig Common if he has a bad meal at the Common Grill? Add in this whole kick back tack, and sudden Palmer Ford seems to have a little too much influence with certain members of the City Council.

Bollinger and Myles also accused Steklac of having a performance problem at his job. This is a serious accusation and hardly done justice by The Standard. If the Trustees honestly believe that Steklac’s performance is poor, then tell us why. Don’t throw out accusations from behind the wall of the newspaper. Make your case. If they don’t have one, both of them should not only be ashamed, but removed from City Council.

Bollinger’s last statement to the Standard is hilarious in it’s irony. “We’re still living in a small city, where you can go to an owner and shake his hand if you have a problem.” Of course, in this scenario, that handshake was false. The deal was broken the moment the City Manager wasn’t offered exactly what was agreed to. Handshakes in imply trust. Palmer Ford broke that trust. In my opinion, anyone, City representative or not, who gets that treatment is well within their social rights to scoff at a dealer and walk away. Palmer’s past donations do not earn them the right to sweat out a City official. Apparently the only handshake that's good in this town is Bollinger's, not Steklac's and certainly not Palmer Ford's.

This whole thing has the smell of a political smear. It reeks of backroom, old boy, cronyism, just the kind of politics that thrive in small towns. (And I know, I’m from one.) There are questions not answered here. Why can a lone City representative negotiate a better deal on his own than a Trustee with a direct line to the owner of car dealership? Why does the dealership with ties to that same Trustee switch the terms of a City-negotiated lease at the last minute? Why does the City Manager get broadsided when he calls the dealership’s bluff and gets a better deal? Why does Bollinger jump Steklac in a City Council meeting with some ethereal accusation of poor job performance, but present no evidence? And then when it’s all said and done, why, if what Steklac has done is such a sin, does the new lease get approved unanimously? Bollinger doesn't even have the fortitude to vote against it.

Sounds like the new lease just needed a bit of hot air to get off the ground.

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