Judge gives OBGC the green light to continue operating
WEST BRANCH — At least until its next scheduled date in court, the Ogemaw County Boys and Girls Club has been given the OK by Circuit Court Judge Michael Baumgartner to operate in its current capacity.
A show cause hearing between the OBGC and the Michigan Department of Human Services was held in Circuit Court in West Branch Friday, Sept. 7. Baumgartner rendered the decision to allow the club to operate as it does now, with a restraining order against the DHS, during the hearing.
“Until Nov. 19, the status quo exists,” he said. “If the state chooses to take any action, they’ll take it through this court.”
County Clerk Gary Klacking said Baumgartner is taking the issue under advisement and taking it up again as a continuation of the show cause hearing at the next date, Nov. 19. Klacking said it is common for a judge to render a decision after taking an issue under advisement.
Before Baumgartner handed down his decision and scheduled the next hearing, he heard arguments from both the defendant, the DHS, represented by Attorney Geraldine Brown, and the plaintiff, the OBGC, represented by Attorney Joni Fixel.
Brown said the DHS informed the club through a series of letters that it would have to obtain a childcare license, and that OBGC staff and board members could be subject to misdemeanor charges.
“We advised them, your honor, it was a violation of the law if they continued the program without the license,” she said.
Brown added the club changing to an open-door at-will policy that allowed children to come and go as they please was dangerous, and the club needed the license to regulate when the kids were at the club.
“Five-year-olds should not be wandering the countryside,” she said.
Baumgartner said Brown’s claim was incorrect, however, as the open door policy was done at the will of the DHS.
“They put this at-will policy in place at the advice of a DHS worker,” he said.
“In their seeking to comply, they left themselves open to additional letters and threats,” he added.
Fixel said the club should have fallen under the exemption after it changed to the open-door at-will policy. This made the club less safe, she added.
“They were actually safer prior to the DHS intervening,” she said.
Baumgartner then attempted to clarify the reasons for the state seeking to close the club.
“Let me get this straight,” he said. “If the boys and girls club provides bocce instruction for every child who shows up, and they’re teaching bocce, whatever nights they’re open, they’d be exempt.”
Baumgartner asked if it were comparable to Little League or youth football, it would be exempt.
“But if they provide free recreation, both organized or for a specific sport, they are required to meet these requirements?” he asked.
Brown agreed with his statements. However, she said the overall intent of the club is not similar to afterschool sports or individual lessons on one subject.
Baumgartner advised the club it should create a structured agenda that offers instruction in different games each night, which could put an end to the threats and letters from the state.
“Just out of curiosity, why don’t the parents decide, when the kids are there, that they’re going to be receiving ping pong instruction, or bocce, or basketball, or volleyball?” he said. “Then you’re exempt.”
Fixel said the club is currently run that way.
According to Baumgartner, the state cannot prevent a parent from allowing their child to join a club.
“You can’t stop me from having my kids go to football,” he said. “You can’t stop me from having my kids go to soccer. You can’t stop me, or any other parent, from having my kid go to, it could be a video game club.”
“What is it that they’re doing wrong?” he asked Brown.
“It is not a single focus group under a director,” she replied.
Baumgartner gave advice to the plaintiffs, as well. He advised them to meet with parents whose children are members at the club to work out a plan to give more supervision, and to work out issues that have caused the attention from the DHS.
“I’m concerned, frankly, with the open-door at-will policy,” he said. “It seems to me, Ms. Fixel, Mr. (Ray) King, you need to meet with your parents.”
The Sept. 7 show cause hearing came one day after the OBGC met with the attorney general’s office in Midland. King told the Herald the meeting with the attorney general’s office Sept. 6 resulted in a standstill.
Fixel told the Herald last month that at the show cause hearing, the DHS will have to prove to the court why a restraining order the OBGC has against the DHS should be lifted.
Michael Baumgartner issued the restraining order July 16.
King said the restraining order was due to the DHS’s demands earlier this year to shut down the club, which has affected the club’s fundraising efforts. In March, the DHS told the OBGC it had to cease operations unless it received a child care center license.
The OBGC operates out of Surline Elementary School every day school is in session from 3:35 p.m. to 6 p.m. A membership cost $10 per year.