Report on the GT County Commission Study Session
The Meeting today was an educational session for the Board to understand their current code of ethics, and what might be improved. The packet included:
1. Code of Ethics for Grand Traverse County Employees and Officials
2. Antrim County Conflict of Interest Policy
3. Code of Ethics and Conduct for Emmet County Commissioners
4. Ethics Handbook for Michigan Municipalities
5. Model Ethics Ordinance for Local Units of Government
6. Robert' Rules of Order - Abstention Due to Personal Interest
Public Comment included two persons against the 8 a.m. meeting time. John DeSpelder said he was glad that they decided to have this session. There were 9 citizens in the audience.
The County Attorney, Kit Tholen, did a very nice power point that is attached to the packet that will be posted. It explained where they were and what their options for action were. I am going to summarize the takeaways from his presentation and commissioners' comments:
1. Currently the county has a Code of Ethics but because the Board of Commissioners has never
adopted it, they are not covered by it.
2. The county's code of ethics is vague about conflict of interest.
3. Robert's Rules of Order is a good default, but it does not always fit the case.
4. State Law MCL 15.322 covers how a commissioner can ethically do work for the county.
Commissioner Wheelock often has challenges related to his business, but he follow the rules
5. There were 2 local cases that are relevant: 1990 Garfield Neighborhood Watch v. Garfield
Township, and 2001 Elmwood Citizens for Sensible Growth v. Elmwood Township. Both
involved selling of land by members of Zoning Board or Planning Commission that related
to decisions they were voting on. Judge Rogers ruled on both. He used the concept of
"appearance of impropriety". He said that there must be facts and the impropriety must
be a reasonable conclusion. He said both times that the vote of the person was invalid.
In one case it rescinded the decision and in one case the decision stood. This concept is not
recognized in all parts of Michigan, but is recorded in this circuit court area.
6. There are 4 options for action. Do nothing, adopt the county's code of ethics, revise the code
of ethics and then adopt it for the Board of Commissioners or adopt an Ethics Ordinance.
7. They examined the codes from Antrim and Emmet county. One has a provision that the
Board chair can tell a commissioner to recuse himself or herself over a conflict of interest (COI). The chair's decision can be overridden by the BOC.
8. The only person who can remove an elected official is the governor.
9. Commissioners are entitled to vote because they are elected by the people.
10. Enforcement and procedures are lacking and need to be added for fairness.
11. If there had been a provision to cover not voting on anything involving domestic partners,
both of the two most recent controversies could have been avoided. This raises the question
of other relatives.
12. The action taken concerning the library board appointment was allowable when the new
Board rescinded the old decision and made a new one. They can change their mind.
13. The Board decided to put forming a working group on next week's agenda.
14. About once in each Board's tenure there is a COI controversy.
There were several public comments at the end. One was a thank you for having the session. Mine was asking for clarification about whether a commissioner is only to consider his own
district in his decision or if he represents the whole county. Dave Petrove asked for more
public input in the Code of Ethics or working group. Also, he thinks more relatives need to be
considered in conflict of interest. COI can be a difficult decision. In the Mair case there was
no money involved and was not a conflict.
I want to clearly state that the following is my opinion: I think it is important that whether
commissioners should accept input from all county residents or only their district residents is
an important issue and needs to be defined. I also believe that adoption of a Code of Ethics is
important for the Board to attempt. It will not be perfect, but the need for public confidence
calls for it.