Police questioning commissioners about open meetings violation

December 23, 2011

By Mary Kindig

Review Correspondent

County Prosecutor Michelle Ambrozaitis sat quietly through most of the Clare County Board of Commissioners meeting on Wednesday, but was asked, before she left, what the status was of the charges that were filed against several Commissioners.

Ambrozaitis responded, “I came down because I heard that there was going to be some discussion about the complaint made about the Open Meetings Act violation and I wanted to give you the information that I had so that you were all working from the same page.   There was a complaint  made by a Commissioner – I’m not going to say who it was, but that’s going to become apparent as the investigation continues, unless the police reports are put in, that individual’s name will appear as the complainant on the police report.

My understanding is the State Police is taking over the investigation and they were concerned because interviews had already been completed, but, from what I hear, none of you have actually talked to anybody at the Sheriff’s Department?  Is that correct?”

Commissioner Jack Kleinhardt said, “I have,” and two other commissioners agreed.  “So three.  But the rest of you have not.  So there was a concern there, but, quite frankly, this is where we stand:  because a complaint was made, an investigation has to be done.  There’s civil penalties, there’s also criminal penalties – there’s are two avenues that can be taken from that, but, quite frankly, if the individual that made the complaint decides that maybe that individual doesn’t want to proceed with that, then a telephone call to the post to Lieutenant Stolicker would be the most appropriate action to stop this ball from rolling.   But if it does come to our office, we will review it and make an appropriate decision based on the information provided by them.”

After Ambrozaitis’s statement, Commissioner Jack Kleinhardt asked her to come back to the Board with updates or with information that the complaint had been dropped, saying, “I either want to be prosecuted or vindicated.”

At issue was presumably the vote taken during the December 7th’s Committee of the Whole meeting, where some Commissioners clearly appeared to be informed of the intent to strip Administrator/Controller Tracy Byard of her Controller title and authority and, some appeared to be totally surprised by the proposal.  Angry words were exchanged and, preceding the 5-2 vote, allegations were made that the votes Chairperson Don David received in support of his motion had been assured prior to the meeting.

Commissioners Lynn Grim and Karen Lipovsky cast the two dissenting votes on December 7th, and both were upset that they were “blindsided” by David’s proposal.  At Wednesday’s meeting, both denied lodging the complaint that the Open Meetings Act was violated.

The Open Meetings Act says, basically, that if a quorum (majority) of the Board is present at any one given time and business is being discussed, the public must be notified in advance of such a meeting and that the meeting must be clerked so that it is part of public record.  Some exceptions are made – and the Board may go into Closed Session –for discussion of subjects such as personnel issues, negotiations, and litigation.

As of Wednesday’s meeting, all the Commissioners knew of the charges and most had comments as to the allegations.

Commissioner Jim Gelios said, “Just one comment on this issue.  I got a phone call also and talked to Mike [Coon].  I get phone calls all the time…I will talk to anybody, anytime.  If they want to call it an investigation, fine – I don’t call it that.  I’ve never done anything.  If there is a criminal investigation, I wasn’t told that.  My feeling is, I will tell it like it is, I’ve never had a problem, I don’t feel there’s been any violation that I know of.  In fact, the big thing that has to be thought about is intent.  I don’t think there’s any intent of anybody here to commit any type of violation of the Open Meetings Act or anything criminal.  So I’m really just surprised at the whole thing, but I have no problem talking to the State Police, I have no problem talking to President of the United States about what I do – I would be glad to do it.  I’ve talked to everybody on this Board at one time or another about something, and if that’s a violation, then so be it.”

Commissioner Kleinhardt said, “I want to say something, and let’s see if I can say this without being offensive to anyone.  You know, I read the papers, and I know some of the things that were said – the allegations that somehow I violated the law in the Open Meetings Act.  Yesterday I got a call from the Sheriff’s Department.  A complaint had been filed, and they needed to interview me on breaking the law…I asked that the State Police interview me, and if I’m found guilty of breaking the law by violating the Open Meeting Act, I want them to present that publicly and I will accept the fact that I broke the law.  On the other hand, if I’m vindicated, I want that to be public too.  I want the people to know that the fact that I may be conniving and doing things behind people’s back — that just wasn’t the way that that happened.  So, with that said, I want to drop that now and I do think that we need to pick up and move forward on coming up with a plan to reduce our deficit.”

Commissioner Leonard Strouse stood to make his comments: “I also want to speak on that.  I want to do one thing right now and resign from the Parks and Recreation Commission.  I’m not going to serve under Mr. Jerry Schmiedicke.  He has an article here in the Clare Sentinel saying that at this next Commission meeting – the meeting we’re at right now – that some Commissioners have acted out of ignorance and circumvented the Open Meetings Act, and he’s also asking that I apologize to the two people who he claims have been left out of the loop, Mrs. Grim and Mrs. Lipovsky.  I’m not apologizing to you ladies.  I’ve not violated the Open Meetings Act.  I have not done anything ever to conspire on this vote concerning the Controller.”

Strouse continued, “I’ve never been called into a police department before to be questioned like Nixon was – ‘what did you know and when did you know it?’  My family has been in this county well over 100 years; I come from a good name, and it’s going to be a good name after I leave it.  I have nothing to apologize for; I have done nothing wrong…I’m going to say I’m up for a fight, I’m not afraid of a fight, I can take a fight on, I’ve got money to invest and I call it an investment if that’s what it’s going to take.  I don’t like my name being drug down like this or into this.  Nobody has to conspire with me or ask me how I’m going to vote, when I’m going to vote, or how I’m going to vote it.  I’m my own man; I make up my own mind, and I vote that way.  I don’t conspire with anyone here – Mr. David or anyone else.”

Referring to Chairperson Don David, Strouse said, “This man is a cop — a former cop; he can read the tea leaves.  It’s not my problem.  If he’s a psychic, that’s up to him.  I’m very happy and content in my personal life; I’m very unhappy as a Commissioner right now of having these accusations brought against me.  The Sheriff’s Department, the State Police, the Prosecutor — whoever – wants to bring a fight for me, bring it on.  I’m a man for it, I can take it on.”  Strouse added, “Being accused of breaking the law is a big thing for me, and I’m not going to stand for it.”

Commissioners Grim and Lipovsky both said they were also called to be interviewed by the Sheriff’s Department.  Grim commented, “I too was called, and I wasn’t given any explanation.  I did not file anything,” adding, “I do think that if you believe that what you did by your vote was right, that none of you brought forth anything to Tracy that would ever give her any inclination of why she didn’t deserve to have the Controller title…If I thought that it was saving money, I should have been brought into that …If it was going to be that she wasn’t doing the job and she didn’t deserve to have it, then I think that should have been brought out to all of us, and her included.”

Grim noted that Administrator/Controller Byard’s recent evaluation gave the Board no apparent reason to remove the title and authority of Controller.  “That really made it look like she had done something wrong,” Grim said, adding, “ At no time was there discussion around this Board of why it should have been taken, other than we just shouldn’t have given it to Bill in the first place, to my recollection.  And that’s where I have trouble wrapping my brain around that, and I’m having a real problem with it.”

Grim continued, “So it’s emotional for all of us…we’re all going through it, every one of us…and what the sad part is, our county’s not been any better off today than we were two weeks ago with what we’re doing, with how we’re going to fix the problem that we have — and we have a huge problem to fix — and we’re one-quarter of the way into it. That means we have three quarters left to make huge cuts, because we are going to have to make them, guys, regardless of if we want to or we don’t.”

Grim concluded, “I think we all hold this county dear.  I don’t think there’s one that sits on this board that doesn’t think that this county means the most to them.”

Earlier in the meeting, the previous Administrator/Controller, Bill Newkirk, came before the Board to address the issue of removing the title and authority of Controller from Byard.  Newkirk said he chose to come forward because his name had been repeatedly brought up in discussions regarding the Board giving him the Controller title. Newkirk stated that he considered stripping Byard of the title and authority of Controller was “a mistake” that, in effect, tied Byard’s hands and hampered her ability to create and monitor the budget.

He noted that many of the problems that arose in completing the budget were problems brought on by the department heads not responding to budget requests in a timely manner.  Newkirk said that he worked under both structures – being an Administrator and an Administrator/Controller – and that stripping Byard of the Controller title was “a step backwards.”

He also reiterated what he had said at the time when he recommended Byard to be his replacement – that he had “full faith and confidence” in her ability to do the job.  Newkirk also asserted that it may be legally questionable to tie the hands of future Boards by removing the title of controller from “any future Administrator.”

Regardless, as in the previous Committee of the Whole vote, the Board voted 5-2 “to remove the title of ‘Controller’ from the present Administrator and/or any future Administrator.”  Commissioners David, Strouse, Gelios, Burger and Kleinhardt voted in favor; Commissioners Lipovsky and Grim voted against.

The more pressing matter of the upcoming budget crunch was also on the minds of the Commissioners.  Chairperson David commented, “We can, at any time, ask for them [the State Administrators] to come in and do an evaluation and give us recommendations and we can do that if we want to.”  David continued, “What [Jim Gelios] is asking is that we sit down with the people without going through their unions and you will have some union steward, as I did, go to the state unions and say ‘what violation is this?’ and that’s a violation, according to the State, of bargaining in bad faith.  In other words, we’re calling all those people together and telling them what we think we want to do, and how would you like to handle this, and they’re going to call it negotiations and so we’re going to be right back with our grievances and all that sort of thing.  So it’s a case of doing this right and getting all our ducks in line and it’s really hard to tell where the ducks line up sometimes so we’re working at it, we’re working at it, we’re working at it.  I submit that we are doing things and it might not be going as fast as…”

David paused, then resumed, saying, “The one thing Jim said I definitely agree with is we don’t want to lay off one person until we know there’s absolutely nothing else that we can do.  Because when we start down that road, you know, we might squeak by until after the first of the year, but we lay off people — imagine if you just got laid off and it’s Christmastime.  They don’t make much money anyway.  We’re asking them to give up seven percent of their wage on average.”

Treasurer Jenny Beemer-Fritzinger reported, “Right now, properties are in danger of foreclosure from taxes that have not been paid.  They’re already in forfeiture, which means they have until March 31st before they’re foreclosed on. So, by statute, I have a Show Cause Hearing and we also have a judicial foreclosure hearing.  So January 19th – it’s a Thursday – from 1:30 to 4:40 is my Show Cause Hearing, in which people in danger of their properties being foreclosed on can come to me and ask for a hardship extension.  This is different from what they offer at the townships; the townships have an exemption.  We offer an extension, which basically we put them on a payment plan and they have an extra year to catch up.”

The Board also heard one presentation from women starting a soup kitchen in Harrison.  Sharon Williams and Victoria Romanoff came before the Board to inform them about beginning a soup kitchen on Wednesdays and Fridays at St. Anthanasius Church.  The soup kitchen is scheduled to open on January 25th from 11:30 to 1:00.   Williams and partner Margie Clark, who was unable to attend the Board meeting, have both worked at Stone Soup in Mt. Pleasant.  Williams said the volunteer staff will be trained as food handlers at meetings on January 5th and 19th.

In other matter at Wednesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting, the Board:

*was told by Treasurer Beemer-Fritzinger that there will be a rabies clinic at the Animal Shelter on January 7th from 10:00 to 1:00, where residents can get their dogs vaccinated and purchase a dog license.

*voted 6-1 to reconsider the direct deposit of county payroll checks, with the stipulation that the process be completed by April 1st, before which employees are given ample information and time to make arrangements for the change, with Commissioner Strouse dissenting.

*voted 7-0 to allow the Clare County Jail to purchase a used van for prisoner transport from the Jail’s commissary fund, not to exceed $17,300.

*approved a Central Dispatch budget adjustment for the ANI/ALI phone system upgrade.

*approved three Sheriff’s Department budget adjustments.

*accepted the Drain Commissioner’s report.

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