A local property owner has sued three Hillsdale county and city officials alleging harassment.
On Oct. 7, Lance Lashaway, owner of Ultimate Holdings LLC, filed a lawsuit in the 1st Judicial Circuit Court and named City Manager David Mackie, County Building Inspector Ray Taylor, and City Zoning Administrator Alan Beeker as defendants.
This lawsuit brought five different charges, alleging that the city and county sent Lashaway a notice of safety code violations at his building, located at 2 N. Howell St. in downtown Hillsdale, that was “filled out improperly.”
“I’m done being harassed,” Lashaway said.
Hillsdale Mayor Adam Stockford said he is monitoring the lawsuit and allegations.
“It looks like a lot of this was done on, ‘So-and-so called me and told me to do this,’ or ‘So-and-so called me to do that.’ It doesn’t look like there’s a whole lot of the official follow-up that you would expect from the government,” Stockford said.
In a press release, the city stated it is its position that the suit “inaccurately alleges that Ultimate Holdings was improperly served with a Municipal Civil Infraction Citation.”
For the last several months, Lashaway’s building has drawn attention from the community, business owners, and city councilmen for being rented to Hope House, a residential treatment center for men who struggle with substance abuse.
“The challenge is perception. It makes a lot of people uncomfortable when they are downtown,” said Robert Socha, city councilman. “I’ve received numerous complaints on the telephone and emails that suggest people would rather not visit the downtown area while those men are still there.”
Hope House Director Kelly Vanbuskirk said following a Hope House resident’s overdose in May 2021, the community began focusing attention on the facility.
“Instead of a lot of people taking the time to get to know these guys, they made some really harsh assumptions,” Vanbuskirk said.
Eventually, Hope House came up at a city council meeting on June 21. Vanbuskirk spoke at the meeting, and she said she received a largely positive response from the other people in attendance.
“There were some of the city council members that seemed to be annoyed with us telling our stories,” Vanbuskirk said. “But after that first city council meeting, the community more as a whole was backing us.”
Socha said it is his goal to help Hope House succeed, but that the residents of Hope House need to “earn the public’s trust back.”
Following the first city council meeting, a second city council meeting on Sept. 20 also addressed tensions between Hope House and the City of Hillsdale.
“For the second meeting, I never got an invitation and I didn’t know it was happening,” Vanbuskirk said. “Considering it was complaints about us, you’d think they would want us there.”
Socha said he thinks the location of Hope House isn’t the best for the city.
“I have nothing against the building owner for making arrangements for them to move there, it’s just not working out for the best interests of the city,” he said.
Over the last 10 months, Hope House had three different inspections and re-inspections, performed by members of the Hillsdale City Fire Department.
Each time, code violations were present that required a re-inspection upon correction, according to a press release from the city.
On Sept. 21, an employee of the HFD conducted the third inspection at Hope House.
“They were supposed to call me when they came in, but they didn’t call me,” Lashaway said. “One of the Hope House aides let them in and they did a walk-through with them.”
Following the inspection, Lashaway said he received no communication from the HFD regarding the findings of the inspection.
“From the sound of it, everything was fine, everybody was happy, no problems,” he said.
On Sept. 23, Lashaway received a letter from the Hillsdale County Building Inspection Department. It was signed by County Building Inspector Ray Taylor, who is named in the suit, and stated the department had been “notified by the City of Hillsdale” about the condition of Hope House following an inspection by the fire department.
“We were called,” Taylor later said. “The city requested a letter, we sent it at their request. We weren’t in the building, but it was witnessed by the city and the city requested this.”
The notice Lashaway received stated “if permitting and corrective action have not begun within 10 days, the site may be posted as ‘unsafe.’” Under Michigan law, this posting would necessitate the vacating of the structure and all the businesses within, including Hope House.
That same day, Lashaway received a list of “inspector comments” along with a Municipal Civil Infraction Citation ticket from the City of Hillsdale Code Enforcement for violations of Hillsdale Municipal Code, namely “mech [mechanical], elec [electrical], and fire violations.”
“They can not issue a building code violation if there’s never been a building code inspector inside my building,” Lashaway said. “I know each of the three times it was someone from the fire department. I know it was a fire code inspector, not a building code inspector. The fire chief says the fire department doesn’t even look for building code violations.”
Vanbuskirk also said it was only ever a fire inspector inspecting the building.
“All I know is that the building inspector never came,” she said.
Upon speaking to the HFD, Lashaway said he was told the fire department has no authority to determine building code violations. In the standard issuing of a building code citation, the HFD said, City Zoning Administrator Alan Beeker fills out the citation, which is then taken to the Hillsdale City Police Department for verification and a signature.
Lashaway did not receive an original copy of the citation ticket. He said instead, he received a photocopy of the ticket with the bottom portion, where the signature and issuer’s name should be, cut off.
“I’ve been cooperative all the way up until I got this letter in the mail threatening to have my building marked unsafe — with a ticket that was photocopied and didn’t have a signature on it,” Lashaway said.
An employee of the HFD told Lashaway “photocopies of tickets are never sent out,” according to the lawsuit.
Lashaway said because the form is missing the name of the issuer and the signature of verification from the Hillsdale City Police Department, he has no way of requesting further information.
Daren Wiseley, Lashaway’s attorney, said the key point of the lawsuit is that a building code violation was filed without the appropriate inspector ever evaluating the building in question.
“You can’t just go around saying people’s buildings are not compliant without even looking at them,” he said.
The city and county have not yet officially responded to the court regarding the lawsuit, but Wiseley said defendants have 28 days to respond after being served. It is upon the defendant’s response that the first court date can be set.
“I have enough evidence to send these people to prison for what they have done to me and the Hope House,” Lashaway said.
Stockford said Lashaway has an “uphill battle” to prove he is being targeted by certain city officials.
“If it turns out that something was done wrong legally, there will be consequences,” Stockford said. “This will not be something that is just swept under the rug.”