Debate over life rings continues in Berrien County

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There are still no definite plans to put life rings on Silver Beach and the South Pier in St. Joseph, Michigan after a packed Berrien County Board of Commissioners meeting Thursday.

The life rings discussion was not on the agenda but many showed up to share their opinion during public comment.

Andrew Austin stood at the podium and recounted the day he had to jump in to Lake Michigan to save a man who was struggling in the strong currents.

"I seen arms in the air and heard someone yelling for help," Austin said. "He was in panic mode."

Austin said there was no life ring in sight – so he decided to take action.

"If there was one on the way - I would've grabbed it," Austin said.

One person after another stood up to tell the board the ways in which the unpredictable lake waters and lack of life rings had impacted their own lives.

Reverend James Atterbury spoke out about his own family’s loss. His nephew drowned in 2012 after jumping off the pier.

“According to the report he surfaced and asked for help,” Atterbury said. “The others there were afraid for their own safety and he drowned.”

While most of the commissioners noted the need for added safety measures by the water, there was disagreement regarding how it should be handled and which entity should oversee the life rings.

“We own the beach,” said Berrien County 4th district commissioner Mamie Yarbrough. “I can see life rings on the beach. But the pier is overseen by the coast guard, owned by the United States.”

Another commissioner brought up a possible partnership with the City of St. Joseph.

“’What is the position of the City of St. Joseph jointly participating with the County of Berrien’ is a legitimate question to ask,” said Mac Elliot, 10th district commissioner.

There was frustration from those on the board that want to see immediate action taken.

Jeanette Leahy, 6th district commissioner, made a motion to approve the life rings Thursday. The motion failed because others said there was not information to make a final decision.

“We need to recognize that this resolution and motion is about saving lives not about liability,” Leahy said. “Let’s be part of saving lives not walking away. We cannot be the anomaly in all the surrounding area. How do we stand out? Berrien County is the only one that doesn’t have it. This is ridiculous.”

The commissioners were able to agree to have a resolution written up and discussed on January 9.