By Mary Kindig
By a vote of 4-3, Commissioner Don David was elected to be Chairperson of the Clare County Board of Commissioners for a second year. Previous Chairperson Karen Lipovsky was also nominated at Wednesday’s meeting, but only received ‘yes’ votes from herself and Commissioner Lynn Grim. David had to cast the deciding vote for himself, as Commissioners Jerry Burger, Grim and Lipovsky voted against extending his chairmanship. Commissioner Jack Kleinhardt was re-elected to the Vice Chair position.
David’s tenure as Chairperson has recently been marred by an accusation of a violation of the Open Meetings Act, and by assertions that his successful proposal to strip Administrator Tracy Byard of her Controller duties and authority was discriminatory. Both topics came up at Wednesday’s meeting, despite stated desires by Commissioners that these events be put behind them or set aside while they wrangle with the projected upcoming budget crisis. With the possibility of civil and criminal charges being brought regarding the alleged Open Meetings Act violation, Commissioners found this hard to do.
Harrison resident Martin Johnson apologized to the Board for writing a letter in the Sentinel that he now felt might have been “over the top” and said that he had come to the meeting to see for himself. He spoke to the Board again later in the meeting: “You need to act on the budget sooner rather than later. The fact is, you do have an expenditure problem…You’ve got to deal with it and, the thing is, you’ve got to deal with it now…I urge you to stay away from all these other distractions so it doesn’t get in the paper so I’m not writing letters…”
Chairperson David replied, “The things that are published in the paper and the things that we discuss at this Board, are the things that are very open and obvious. There may be other issues that we all have to consider as members of this Board…We’re privy to information that we don’t divulge to the public. Now, at the risk of getting into the violation of the Open Meetings Act,” David hesitated, and then continued, “I researched the Open Meetings Act and it’s – you’ve heard of the spirit of the law? Well, the spirit of the Open Meetings Act is an evil spirit, because if you really research it and you look into what other States do and have done, you will find that there is absolutely no way to conduct business without violating the Open Meetings Act in some State in this Union. And it’s just a monstrosity. So the things that we discuss openly here, doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve all gotten together and had a big caucus someplace and discussed what we’re going to do. It’s just that there’s business to conduct here and this is a business and it’s difficult – it’s very difficult to conduct business here. I’m going to do my best and, quite frankly, I’m going to have conversations with people who work in this building that I’m not going to share with anybody else. It’s a necessary part of doing this job…What you read and the business we have to conduct, we’re doing our dead-level best to conduct business and conduct it openly, honestly and completely above-board.”
A discussion ensued later regarding legal representation for Commissioners. Commissioner Jack Kleinhardt said, “This is a criminal deal, and no way will legal representation be provided by the County to represent us. It’s up to us to get our own counsel.”
Commissioner Jim Gelios commented, “Intent in law is everything – criminal law…I handled hundreds of cases at the detective bureau and, let me tell you, if you’ve got time to spend on this type of complaint, you’ve got a lot of time on your hands.” Gelios continued, “I’m not so sure, acting as a body, that we don’t have legal representation on accusations, and that’s all it is is accusations.”
Commissioner Kleinhardt said, “It’s unfortunate this incident happened, but it’s happened and there’s nothing we can do about it. How do I, as a Commissioner, go forward to do the things that is in the best interest of the County without being able to talk to other Commissioners, to be able to get their input in some things, to be able to bring me up to speed on things that I need to know?…The interpretations of the Open Meetings Act is so vague, so broad, what am I to do?”
Commissioner Grim found a reference to the Open Meetings Act in the OMA Handbook, put out by the Michigan Municipal Risk Authority, which Chairperson David read aloud: “ ‘An informal canvas by one member of a public body to find out where the votes would be on a particular issue is not a meeting and, therefore, not a violation of the Open Meetings Act,’” and David added, “and then they cite case law.”
As for the assertions that David’s proposal could be seem as discrimination against Administrator Byard by stripping her of the Controller title, David said, “I’ve thought long and hard about some of the news articles. I sat down to write a rebuttal and decided to wait…I’m deeply disappointed that the news media continues to try and make this a boy/girl thing, which is absolutely ridiculous. And I really take exception that.” Commissioner Leonard Strouse commented, “People are carping about all of us, saying we’re boy/girl, this and that, like Tracy/don’t like her. We had our thoughts on the Controller position. That’s in the past; we’ve got to move ahead here.”
In the Committee of the Whole meeting, the Board discussed several options regarding budget issues. Commissioner Grim suggested that the Board of Commissioners cut back to one meeting a month. The consensus of the Board was that, with budget problems looming, Grim’s proposal would not be feasible at this time. Commissioner Strouse asked about the possibility of a spending freeze, but, until the Board amends the budget, departments are free to spend what has already been approved. It was noted that Byard had already asked department heads to refrain from spending as much as possible, so that the consequences of any budget cuts might not need to result in such dire cuts within their departments.
Senior Services/Community Development Director Lori Ware reiterated her proposal to set department budgets according to a three-year average of their percentage of the total revenues each department spent. For example, if, over the past three years, the Clerk’s Office spent an average of 15 percent of the County’s total revenues, the Clerk’s budget would become 15 percent of the anticipated revenues for the current year. According to Ware, this would allow department heads to determine for themselves what cuts they would have to make to be within budget, and would ensure that expenses could not exceed revenues.
Lastly, Commissioner Kleinhardt proposed a five-point plan, but only spoke about points one, two and five. Point 1 was to ask all departments to cut spending by 10 percent. Point 2 was to “have a serious talk about the things that we do that are not mandated, and a serious discussion whether we should continue to fund those, reduce their funding, or completely eliminate some of these departments.” Point 5 was what Kleinhardt called a “poison pill” and that involved “bringing in the State to do what we cannot do.”
With Commissioners feeling pressure to act on the presumed budget shortfall, they will have an Ad hoc committee meeting Thursday at 2:00 p.m. to discuss the budget options, and they called a Budget Workshop meeting for Wednesday, January 11th at 9:00 a.m. Both meetings are open to the public.
Other business the Board conducted at Wednesday’s meeting included defeating a motion to move the Accounts Payable and Payroll personnel from the Administrator’s Office to the Clerk’s Office. Commissioner Grim stated, “I’m still highly opposed to it and I wish you’d reconsider it…who has the budget should be having these two personnel.” The vote was 1-6, with Commissioner Kleinhardt casting the lone ‘yes’ vote.
The Board did not consider the motion to move $300 from the Contingency Fund to the Clerk’s budget to cover the cost of a new check plate because, if Payroll/Accounts Payable is not moving to her office, a change of check plate is not needed.
In other business at Wednesday’s meeting, the Commissioners:
*unanimously approved a budget adjustment in the amount of $1300 to cover the cost for the switch for the server at the Sheriff’s Department.
*unanimously approved the amendment to the MSHDA Grant #MSC-2009-0761-HOA, with Lipovsky to sign, as she was the certifying officer at the time the grant was submitted.
*moved a motion to delay the WIFI project within the County Building to the Committee of the Whole, where they discovered that the equipment for the project had already been purchased below budget, and that it would cost 25 percent of the purchase to return the equipment. The Board then voted to send the matter back to the full Board as a motion to continue and complete the project.
*voted 7-0 to adopt the resolution approving the tax anticipation note for $2,000,000.
*approved moving $125 from the Contingency Fund into the line item to pay for an additional site survey, so that the County would own all Broadband site surveys.
*approved the BOC, COW and Finance dates for 2012.
*approved all five Clare County Transit Corporation resolutions, which is required every year.
*received Jim Gelios’ resignation from the Department of Human Services Board. Gelios stated, “I will not sit on a board with a chair that I have lost respect for.”
*received the Senior Services annual report, which cited 8,167 more meals served in 2011 than in 2010, revenues higher than expenditures, and no waiting lists for any services offered to senior citizens.
*voted 7-0 to request that Mr. Stoker, their attorney, schedule a meeting with all County unions and union reps to discuss concessions.