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A ‘tea party’ predecessor

Before there was a " tea party,” there was the crew of arch-conservative budget hawks that took over this staid Midwestern suburb — the group that critics call the Gang of Four.

It’s a nickname that the core members — a contractor, a former hog farmer, a sheriff’s deputy and a libertarian economist — have adopted with good humor as they’ve carried out their own revolution in this one-restaurant hamlet of 10,200 people, deposing what they considered to be a profligate Republican regime and dramatically scaling back government.

Since forming a majority on the Board of Trustees in November 2008, the Gang has shrunk the Police Department from 13 officers to six, eliminated the building inspector and park staff positions, and cut board members’ dental, vision and guaranteed pension benefits.

The Gang has discussed pulling out of the maintenance contract for the local cemetery. There was some talk of eliminating the gas money for the van at the senior center.

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This month, some locals were dismayed when the Gang canceled “Nature Halloween,” a pumpkin-painting and educational event that typically drew 1,000 costumed kids. It cost the township about $1,000.

“Why can’t the government do something nice for the people once in a while?” said Ida Reed, 82, a former board member and one of numerous residents who don’t understand why the township — which balances its budget every year, in accordance with state law — should be considered in crisis. “If nobody came, I could understand it. But they had droves of people come in. They took them on hayrides.”

The Gang has been motivated by questions at the heart of the nation’s rowdy, recession-era shout-fest. “It’s one thing we’ve been saying in unison that’s similar to the tea party mantra,” said Trustee Mike Gardner, the economist. “What is the proper role of government? What expenditures are truly necessary?”

The austere answers offered by the tea party have been limited largely to slogans on placards. In Flushing Township, the Gang of Four has turned the placards into policy. The reaction has been fierce.

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For decades, board meetings were sleepy affairs. These days, the modest council chamber — with its folding chairs and “In God We Trust” poster — tends to be packed. Gang critics alight on the left of the aisle, supporters on the right.

“It’s been a zoo. It’s been an absolute zoo,” left-side local Sandy Lanxton, 69, whispered to a visitor just before the board’s October meeting. “They’re getting rid of our police. They don’t support what this town should build up.... You know, they’re tea baggers.”

Right-sider Gordon “Mike” Cookingham, 74, said the recession awakened residents to the realization that their government had grown arrogant and bloated.

“This group,” he said nodding to the Gang, “has saved us a ton of money.”

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The Gang — Gardner; Mark Purkey, 56, the contractor; Scott Minaudo, 39, the deputy; and Bill Noecker, 59, the farmer — narrowly survived a bitter recall campaign last year.

They inherited a Police Department whose budget swelled from $660,000 per year to $1.2 million between 2001 and 2009, even though the township, with its modest homes on generous, woodsy lots, has not had any serious crime waves. The Gang preferred to cut cops rather than raise taxes.

Other cuts are necessary, they say, because the previous board saddled the township with over-generous pensions. They are also concerned about possible future declines in revenue from property taxes and the state sales tax, of which they receive a modest yearly chunk.

Noecker — a big, blustery man with a white Wilfred Brimley moustache — fears that there isn’t much on the horizon, here in General Motors country, to replace the tens of thousands of jobs lost since the mid-1970s.

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Across the nation this year, many towns and cities have been reluctantly slashing services, including public safety, in response to declining revenue.

But in Flushing Township, residents like Kurt Zimmerman — a Republican who mounted the recall — contend that the Gang has gone overboard.

“Even communism looks good on paper,” said Zimmerman, 55, who manages a chain of hardware stores. “Even though I agree with some of their ideals, there’s no compromise when you’re dealing with a revolutionary.”

Gardner, who founded a countywide tea party, said that was the point.

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“That’s where people in politics get a bad name, when they have their ideals, but they leave them at the door for compromise,” he said. “I believe we need to hold to our ideals.”

The seeds of insurrection were planted shortly after May 2008, when voters rejected, by 69 votes, a property tax increase to avoid laying off police officers.

“Most people thought we were paying enough in taxes, and the economy was just starting to fold up,” Zimmerman said. “It’s not like these people didn’t have an extra $80 to $100 a year, but they just decided they’d had enough.”

At their next meeting, frustrated trustees voted to put the tax increase before voters again in November.

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Some saw the move as a defiance of the voters’ will. There was a revolt, and Noecker, Gardner and Purkey emerged as its leaders, setting their sights on Republican township trustees.

“I’VE BEEN VERY THRIFTY WITH MY MONEY, SOMETIMES DOWNRIGHT CHEAP,” read one of Noecker’s ads. “I’LL TREAT YOUR MONEY THE SAME WAY!”

The insurgents beat their fellow Republicans in an August primary. In November, they were swept into office, as the police tax proposal failed again — this time by more than 1,000 votes. They found an ally in a sitting member, Minaudo, a Democrat, and formed a majority on the seven-member board.

Gardner was perhaps the greatest worry to the Gang’s opponents. They remembered him as an unswerving conservative from an early age, the smart kid with the lawn care business who liked to argue about the sanctity of property rights.

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This was Gardner’s second tour on the board. In 2000, at age 22, he won a seat while studying at Northwood University, which focuses on conservative, free-market principles.

Some voters expected, he says now with a smile, “that I couldn’t do any harm.”

Gardner, now 31, is tall and thin, with an angular face and wire-rimmed glasses. He considers himself the intellectual “flag-bearer” of the group, a small-L libertarian who teaches at his alma mater while working at a logistics company.

On his first stint on the board, he railed against the collection of cable television franchise fees that fund maintenance of the township’s 130-acre nature park.

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The fee, he argued, was essentially an unevenly levied tax. But Gardner also believes that parks are a “luxury” that government should not provide because they do not aid in commerce or the protection of citizens.

The rest of the Gang is not so dogmatic, but they were united in their concerns about the Police Department. The discussion of officer layoffs grew heated in spring 2009. By June, Zimmerman filed the recall papers against them.

The four went back to knocking door-to-door, running a second campaign as the national tea party movement was gaining strength.

In November, they survived the recall, easily.

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“I was just a couple of years ahead of my time,” Gardner said. “Now there are other people who can see that local government can get too large.”

And so, a return to frugality: Noecker and Supervisor Terry Peck, the township equivalent of mayor and a Gang of Four ally, have been doing a lot of the yard work around the tidy government building themselves.

Technically, Noecker is township treasurer, a full-time position that pays $53,000. He’d like to reduce it, he said, but once elected, he discovered that state law prohibited him from cutting his own pay. During a recent visit, he produced copies of two checks he has written to the township totaling $3,200.

With the building inspector position eliminated, anyone seeking a permit must now get it from the state, which offers the service to the township for free.

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With the law enforcement cuts, there are roughly 20 hours a week in which the 36-square-mile township has no local police coverage; during those times, the county sheriff or state police handle emergency calls. (Noecker said the township does not pay an extra fee to these agencies). The police office closes at 1:30 p.m. daily. A spaghetti dinner in September raised money for new uniforms.

In January, the Gang chose a new police chief, Dale Stevenson, who had been laid off from his job as a sergeant in another town and is now working for roughly half of what his predecessor made. Most weekdays, he handles the morning road patrol personally.

Stevenson said the township is split between people who accept that government must shrink with a shrinking economy, and those “who can’t accept the fact that rich people are becoming poor people, that you can’t have all the same goodies.”

Noecker said the Gang reduced expenditures from $2.5 million in fiscal 2008 to about $2.1 million in fiscal 2010. Critics don’t understand why such extremes are necessary. They note that the township has money in the bank to handle emergencies.

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Fans of the nature park — a serene swath of reconstituted prairie and hardwood forest — are uncertain it can survive without professional staff. The previous park manager was a trained naturalist who set controlled burns of prairie grass, led educational programs and fought off invasive species.

Noecker said he and Peck have been clearing trails and keeping up the park themselves, with help from part-time maintenance workers. The annual savings: about $100,000.

In addition to the Halloween celebration, Noecker said Flushing Township will no longer fund a maple syrup gathering this winter.

“There are some very basic functions of township government,” he said. “Pumpkins, syrup, hayrides — that’s not one of them.”

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richard.fausset@latimes.com


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