Records: Wentworth secured $6.8M grant to dredge lake where former aide lives
- Former House Speaker Jason Wentworth secured a $6.8 million grant for a lake in Clare on which a former aide lives
- The grant was for a dam in ‘satisfactory’ condition when dozens of other dams in worse shape got no state aide
- The aide is tied to a now-halted $25 million grant, also secured by Wentworth, that is under investigation state officials
Four months before then-House Speaker Jason Wentworth secured a $25 million grant for a Clare health campus led by his former aide, the lawmaker secured $6.8 million for dam repairs and dredging at a Clare lake where the same aide lives, records show.
Statewide, 65 dams statewide were in worse condition than the one on Lake Shamrock and also would cause significant damage downriver if they failed, state records show.
But Michigan law allows lawmakers to allocate money for pet projects — often in their districts — with little oversight, allowing Wentworth to bypass dams in greater need of repair.
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State environmental officials acknowledge the dam would have been a low priority if engineers — rather than politicians — decided which should be fixed first.
“(Lake Shamrock) wouldn’t have been high on our radar,” said Hugh McDiarmid, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
“It didn’t rise to the top of our list.”
Wentworth, R-Farwell, did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but has said that dam safety was a focus for him before he was term-limited out of office last year.
Wentworth has said he worked closely with local officials to fund projects such as the dredging and repairing the dam that creates Lake Shamrock, a small waterway near the Tobacco River surrounded by 100 homes.
Property records show one of those homes is owned by David Coker, who worked for the powerful Republican as an aide until 2021 and is a former chair of the Clare County Republican Party.
Coker also formed a nonprofit that was awarded a $25 million grant to build a health and fitness campus in Clare.
Documents obtained by Bridge this week show the nonprofit led by Coker paid a private consulting firm owned by him over $820,000 in the days after the grant was formally awarded in December.
The state ordered Coker to stop all work on May 4, the day after Bridge’s initial story raising questions about the project.
By then, the state had already awarded nearly $10 million to Coker’s nonprofit for the unfinished project.
A state inspector general is investigating the health campus spending because of concerns ”that the invoices reflected the work of one person which could have resulted in duplicate billing/payment,” according to state health department spokesperson Lynn Sutfin
Coker did not respond to comment from Bridge this week.
‘Let professionals do their job’
Wentworth secured funding for Lake Shamrock in 2022 even though, at the time, its dam was listed in “satisfactory” condition by the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
“We need a fair system of ranking the dams in the state,” said Bob Stuber, executive director of the Michigan Hydro Relicensing Coalition, which advocates for dam safety.
“We should let the professionals do their job (and determine repair priorities.)”
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates 6 percent of the state’s dams have a “significant risk” for hazard. It gave the state’s dams an overall grade of C-.
After devastating floods in May 2020 caused two mid-Michigan dams to fail, the state used some of its federal stimulus money in 2022 to create a pool of money to address dam safety, including $200 million to help restore two dams that failed in Gladwin and Midland counties.
In that same bill, Wentworth won the grant for Lake Shamrock.
That left $28 million for the rest of the roughly 1,000 dams the state regulates. (There are other dams in the state, but many are too small to regulate.)
In the first year, 59 applicants asked for a total of $51 million. The state agreed to spend $15.3 million on 16 dams.
McDiarmid, the state environmental spokesperson, said the agency was not asked for input about the Lake Shamrock grant and would have preferred it go through a competitive bidding process. He stressed the legislative grant is separate from the agency's system of funding dam repairs, which prioritizes fixing ones with the most needs and highest risks.
‘Off-putting and unfair’
The cost of repairs is often prohibitive for communities such as Boyne Falls, a village of 354 residents with a dam on the Boyne River that feeds into Lake Charlevoix and then Lake Michigan.
Like the one on Lake Shamrock, the dam is listed in satisfactory condition.
Local leaders want to determine if the dam should be fixed or removed, but the village’s taxes only generate $68,000 per year.
A feasibility study would cost $500,000, said Kim Balke, program director of the Conservation Resource Alliance, a west and northwest Michigan group which advocates for removing dams and letting rivers run wild. The coalition asked the state to fund the work but the Boyne Falls request didn’t make the cut this year.
In Clare, city officials had long hoped to get help with the lake, by dredging it and shoring up the spillway. So far, only a portion of the dredging has occurred, City Manager Jeremy Howard told Bridge Michigan.
The city will kick in $1.7 million for the project, whose total cost is $8.5 million. The state is paying $5.3 million for dredging and $1.5 million for dam repair.
The largest grant in the overall dam safety program was $3.8 million for the Peninsular Paper Dam on the Huron River near Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. It is listed in fair condition.
“That stuff’s been happening for years,” said Bryan Burroughs, executive director of Michigan Trout Unlimited, a conservation group that has advocated for removing dams to restore rivers and streams.
He called the process “off-putting and unfair.”
Wentworth scored the Clare dam grant during budget negotiations when many special projects of legislators and the governor are funded. The grants have become an integral part of gaining bipartisan support, with dozens of legislators and the governor able to find money for parks, road, museums and other special projects in their districts.
It’s the time of each legislative session for doling out favors, often for specific communities or political allies, including Democrat-friendly unions. In the past two years alone, lawmakers have allocated $2 billion for pet projects.
Burroughs and others have talked with legislators for years seeking money to help repair and remove dams. But fiscal restraints have limited how much the state has been able to put into such work.
The problems became more apparent after the mid-Michigan dam failures. “Dams are a problem on numerous levels. I think the public is slowly starting to appreciate that they are a concern,” Burroughs said.
But dam safety advocates say that, while there may be discretion over projects such as funding local pools and parks, Michigan needs to develop a system in which dams with the most problems or highest risk, would get the most immediate attention.
“We would like to see some very objective, logical approach to how dams get funded,” said Stuber of the Michigan Hydro Relicensing Coalition.
Editor's note: This story was updated at 3:05 p.m. July 17 to incorporate additional comments from state environmental regulators about the grant process.
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