Screenshot via Zoom - Stephen French, a former city clerk for the City of Kalamazoo and the City of Hillsdale, was hired by Three Rivers city commissioners Tuesday to be the new Three Rivers city clerk.

Three Rivers hires former Kalamazoo, Hillsdale clerk French as city clerk

Concerns raised about past arrest, ballot issues

THREE RIVERS — Three Rivers city commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to hire former Kalamazoo City Clerk and Hillsdale City Clerk Stephen French as their new city clerk.

French, a resident of Comstock, will replace Melissa Bliss as clerk, who left at the beginning of the year to take a job with the St. Joseph County Clerk’s office.

French, who has more than 20 years of experience as a city clerk in Kalamazoo, Comstock Township, Hillsdale and Moraine, Ohio, was questioned prior to the vote by commissioners about a number of issues in his past.

Chief among those was a 2009 arrest in Kettering, Ohio, where, according to the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, French was arrested and charged with soliciting a prostitute and using a weapon while intoxicated, both misdemeanors. At the time, French was the Clerk of Council for Moraine, a suburb of Dayton, Ohio.

City Manager Joe Bippus told commissioners during discussion that the charges were eventually dropped and later expunged from French’s record, and French told commissioners he was able to keep his job in Moraine until he resigned in 2013.

“The city of Moraine did a thorough background check of myself after that occurred, and unanimously returned me back to my position after approximately a month,” French said, claiming news articles about his arrest at the time had “false allegations that were not substantiated in court.” “I will tell you my city manager, David Hicks, did supply the city with an excellent reference of both my professional and my character, and I appreciate that.”

French’s past as a city clerk also included two incidents regarding election ballots, one of which was also discussed by commissioners.

In 2018, according to the Hillsdale Daily News, while French was Hillsdale’s city clerk, he allowed an ineligible city council candidate on their August primary ballot, who eventually went on to win the primary and the general election. The city council eventually vacated the seat because of the issue. The candidate had lived in the Hillsdale area for two years, but Hillsdale’s city charter requires a candidate live in the city for three years. Because the issue was not caught until after primary ballots had been printed, the candidate remained on the ballot.

French resigned as Hillsdale city clerk in November 2018 to "take a position closer to home." However, according to the Hillsdale Daily News, Mayor Adam Stockford “admitted to pressuring French to resign,” giving French an option of resigning or having a city council vote on terminating his employment, per the city’s charter. Ultimately, Hillsdale City Manager David Mackie said while the resignation was encouraged, it was a voluntary resignation.

French explained the situation regarding his resignation from Hillsdale, saying he placed the candidate on the ballot “based on the education I had received through the state of Michigan” as well as the Hillsdale city attorney’s legal opinion.

“I thought it was the right move to continue to place this candidate on the ballot,” French said, adding it was “generally accepted” the three-year requirement was “much too long to comply with the state constitution.”

“Council did not agree with me, and it’s something I still – I would make the same decision again in terms of putting him on the ballot,” French continued. "I feel very strongly he should’ve been placed on the ballot. Unfortunately, the mayor did not agree with me, and my employment was ended.”

Ultimately, French said he did not take the matter to court, as an attorney explained to him it would be hard to prove damages because of similar pay he received in his new job as a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service in Wyoming, Mich., which he started in 2019 and held at the time of his hiring by Three Rivers.

The other incident occurred in September 2004, where, according to the Kalamazoo Gazette, French “resigned under pressure” under allegations he improperly processed absentee voter ballots in the August primary election that year. Despite the allegations, according to a Sept. 8, 2004 article in the Gazette, Kalamazoo City Attorney Robert Cinabro said in a statement there was “no evidence” French committed fraud or changed voting results, but said “we must avoid even the appearance of impropriety when it comes to election results.”

French, in the 2004 article in the Gazette, said he felt he did nothing wrong, calling the issue a “technicality.” French explained the issue in the 2004 article, saying that on the afternoon of the primary, he ran a batch of absentee ballots that voters had cast in order to test newly-implemented optical-scan voting equipment. Later in the article, he said he resigned “to head off conflict in the office (and) to make sure the city of Kalamazoo received a fair shake in the November election.” Prior to the incident, according to the article, French had received high marks on his performance from the Kalamazoo City Commission.

Despite the issues presented with ballots and his past arrest, Bippus said French was a “natural fit” for the city clerk position.

“We interviewed Mr. French, and he had definitely impressed us with his knowledge of being a municipal clerk,” Bippus said. “It seemed like his ability to get along with people, his ability to fold into our organization and support us in the things we want to do and the things we require our clerk to do, it seemed like a natural fit.”

When asked by First District Commissioner Pat Dane how many people applied for the position, Bippus said “11 or 12” applied, with two interviews officially given. A total of five people were originally scheduled to interview based on qualifications from submitted resumes, but prior to interviews, Bippus said other candidates contacted them saying they were already getting jobs and declined an interview. Dane expressed her concerns with the quickness of the process, with interviews having occurred Jan. 11.

“It just seems like we’re just jumping into something quickly,” Dane said. “With the fact there is some things in the background, I don’t want to jump into anything we might regret.”

At-Large Commissioner Daryl Griffith said while French’s past was “alarming at the start,” it “said a lot” that French’s arrest charges “didn’t go anywhere.”

“When you’ve been up here this long, you get accused of things you don’t know where it came from or where they got it,” Griffith said. “It says a lot that, number one, the charges didn’t go anywhere, but more so the city decided to keep Stephen for several years after that. That tells me a lot about what may have been the truth in that situation. It does give me pause, I’ll admit that.”

Griffith asked Bippus if he was comfortable with hiring French, and Bippus said yes.

“It has given me pause as well, but I’m landing on the thought that I don’t believe he’s characterized by this,” Bippus said. “I believe something happened, he made a mistake, he’s owned up to this, he paid the price for it. The fact it’s been expunged from his record is part of the thing, and most prosecutors don’t do that unless there’s an inherent problem. I think somebody made a mistake, and it isn’t an issue of their actual character.”

French said he has learned from his mistakes from the incident in question.

“I have learned from my mistakes since that occurrence,” French said. “I certainly don’t want to gloss over the fact or ignore it.”

Mayor Tom Lowry also commented on French’s charges, saying it was a “strong statement” that having the prostitution and gun charges being expunged was a “one-time mistake.”

“At this point, I’m glad Joe said what he did. The case from 13 years ago not only was thrown out, it was expunged. As Joe said, a prosecuting attorney doesn’t do that unless he sees lifelong habits or a propensity to do it again, a danger to society, and none of that is there,” Lowry said. “The fact it was expunged is a strong statement that maybe he has made a one-time mistake and he has paid the price. That’s how our judicial system is set up. If Joe’s willing to recommend, I’m willing to put my neck on the line also and give Stephen a shot.”

As to the Hillsdale incident, Lowry said French was “caught in the political crossfire” and took the resignation “with a grain of salt” that French “wasn’t necessarily wrong.”

“I take that with a heavy grain of salt when someone’s let go because of politics because there’s a couple of people on the commission that are gunning for you,” Lowry said. “I take it with a grain of salt that he wasn’t necessarily wrong, but people felt uncomfortable with him. That’s not a reason to not hire somebody. I don’t place much weight with the Hillsdale situation.”

Third District Commissioner Chris Abel mentioned French’s short terms in each of his stops, and asked where French sees himself in five years. French said the last thing he wanted to do was “take this opportunity and use it to go to a bigger city.”

“Through all of the job changes you see, there’s one common core issue, and that’s me wanting to be a city clerk,” French said. “When I worked for the post office, I continued to go to training, I continued to work elections for my peers, so I can keep up with my education on that end. I’m telling you, in five years, I will be at the city of Three Rivers and will not be looking for a different job.”

French will begin his tenure as city clerk on Feb. 2.

In other business…

  • Commissioners approved a special exception use permit for a domestic assault shelter in town. Extra provisions were added to include annual inspections, 24/7 staffing at the shelter, and having a limit of 21 residents at the shelter.
  • Commissioners approved the use of $85,541.96 of budgeted funds to repair three Fournier Dewatering Press channels at the Wastewater Treatment Plant.
  • Commissioners placed the proposed sale of 14.19 acres of land at the Airport Industrial Park to Clean Streams, LLC on file for 30 days.
  • Commissioners received a presentation on the city’s annual audit report. Nathan Balderman of Rehmann Robson told commissioners the auditors did not find major issues with the city’s financials, and gave an unmodified opinion, the highest opinion in an audit.
  • Commissioners discussed the process of dispensing of tax sale properties and how they could possibly be changed or modified. More on that discussion will be in the Wednesday edition of the Commercial-News.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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