When Saugatuck City Councilmember Garnet Lewis, a three-time candidate for the Michigan Legislature and former mayor, was collecting signatures for city council hopeful Mark Miller last summer, she failed to sign a nominating petition as its circulator before it was turned in to the city clerk. As stated in the fine print, it is a misdemeanor to not report oneself as a circulator.
“Mark [Miller] took the petitions to the clerk to turn in,” Lewis told Pride Source. “He signed them. No one questioned it until they were FOIAd and studied.” She was referring to a few enthusiastic residents who retrieved copies of the petitions through the Freedom of Information Act.
Lewis wasn’t aware that something was amiss until while on vacation, when she received text messages that state troopers wanted to talk. The campaign violation had been reported to the Michigan State Police by former mayors Russ Gardner, Bill Hess and Peg Sanford in October, according to the Commercial Record. Miller dropped out of the race. (“I think in order to just get this past us,” Lewis said.) Lewis said she was surprised that the state police were involved.
“Normally, anything related to elections tends to go through the Secretary of State and/or the Bureau of Elections,” Lewis said, “and to have the state police involved with this — it just was not the normal process.”
It wasn’t until a Friday at the end of February that Lewis heard from the trooper again. This time, he told her the attorney general had filed misdemeanor charges against her and Miller. “And that was the first I had any inkling that anything was going to go beyond just a standard reporting,” Lewis said. “So I was a bit shocked. And as you can imagine, my heart fell into my stomach.”
This is just the latest example of extremists on the west side of the state stirring up trouble for no other reason than to push people out of office and enforce their own agenda. Let Ottawa County serve as a cautionary tale. Or ask Ruth Crowe, a lesbian artist whose work wasn’t to the liking of the Allendale Public School board and rejected from display in her alma mater. Defunding the Patmos Library over books some folks don’t like is yet another petty, short-sighted act by individuals who wish to strong arm a community. (With that said, Election Day is Nov. 7.)
Lewis was advised to hire a criminal defense attorney and not turn herself in lest she wind up in jail over the weekend. The attorney informed her the case would cost a minimum of $5,000. Lewis decided she would be foolish not to proceed. “But never in my wildest dreams had I ever imagined having to do something like that,” Lewis said. She was arraigned on April 6 and freed on $1,000 bond.
Appointed to the Michigan Travel Commission in February, Lewis understood her legal matters could become a distraction. She submitted her letter of resignation to the governor.
Lewis’ settlement hearing was held Aug. 11 via Zoom in Allegan County District Court. She pleaded guilty to the charge of collecting signatures on a petition without reporting herself as circulator and has agreed to pay a $500 fine plus $350 in court costs. After six months of probation, the charge will be dropped.
Lewis released a statement to the media. It reads in part, “Even with years of experience circulating nominating petitions, mistakes can happen. I clearly made one. This process has been an expensive lesson I will not repeat.”
Former State Rep. Barb Byrum has been the Ingham County clerk since 2013. She said she hasn’t heard of a case like this before.
“Prior to this, I am not familiar with a circulator being charged as a result of their failure to sign the circulating portion of a petition,” Byrum said, adding, “It has been my experience that law enforcement in general, whether that’s the municipal, county or state police, are typically reluctant to get involved in alleged election complaints such as this.”
Since the matter came to light, Lewis has chosen not to step down from city council and is currently seeking a third term.
After the settlement hearing, what should have been the end of 10 harrowing months for Lewis was not yet over. Cyberbullying, a crime in Michigan, would come next.
A recording of the settlement hearing was posted in the private Facebook group Saugatuck and Douglas Awareness by retired attorney Gary Medler with the words, “Time for Ms. Lewis to resign.” Screenshots were provided to Pride Source by Saugatuck resident Glenna Dejong before the posts were removed from that group and a second group where it had been posted. Medler put forth a scheme allegedly concocted by Lewis and Miller. Other residents pushed back. Medler was joined in another neighborhood forum by former clerk Erin Wilkinson.
“I will copy and post the entire State Police Detective Investigation Report, the criminal charges brought against Garn and Dr. Miller and the Court Dockets for both prosecutions,” Medler said. Dejong does not believe Medler made good on his threat. What Dejong did find was that by posting the recording, Medler was likely in violation of court rules, YouTube copyright law and the neighborhood forum’s own guidelines — or some combination of the three.
Lewis reported the harassment to the state police. Not long after, the posts came down.
“There were people that served on city council forever and just were rooted in their ways and didn't like change,” Dejong said, explaining why she thinks Lewis was targeted. “From my perspective, a lot of things, we just didn’t modernize. We didn’t get moving. Garn wanted to move things.”
She said Lewis wanted to keep Saugatuck both a tourist town and a desirable place to live by making improvements like finishing bike trails. And Lewis encouraged new people to join the council. “I think it's kind of the old guard that are the ones that are upset about it,” Dejong said.
Nor does Lewis believe being a strong woman and an LGBTQ+ activist always works in her favor — not even in Saugatuck.
“I've not been shy about being openly LGBTQ and have been a strong advocate for Pride and recognition and support of our LGBTQ+ community,” Lewis said. “I’ve never been shy about that.”
Lavora Barnes, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, expressed her support.
“I’m glad to see the legal process play out fairly so that the council can continue to do important work for the people of Saugatuck,” Barnes said. “Garnet Lewis is a fierce advocate for her community, and I know she will serve Saugatuck proudly.”
During Lewis’ political career, she has taken on the likes of marriage equality opponent Gary Glenn, nemesis to so many in the queer community. She said being attacked is like that all over again.
“I think karma will have its due course,” Lewis said. “The bullies will continue to get their way unless good, strong people stand up and stay involved. This type of stuff is very childish. It's very immature.” Lewis expressed gratitude for her support network and the support of the majority of the constituents of the city of Saugatuck. “They are not happy about this,” she said.
“More often than not,” Lewis added, “if you're strong, folks will follow your lead. I think there are a lot of good people who should step up into these leadership roles. And if anything, this should make them more determined to do so.”