CORUNNA — The attorney for an Owosso woman filed a lawsuit Thursday in 35th Circuit Court — one that alleges violations of the Michigan Open Meetings Act — and also seeks an emergency court order to rescind COVID-related hazard bonuses awarded to employees of Shiawassee County.
Philip Ellison, who represents Nichole Ruggiero, is seeking an immediate ex parte hearing in circuit court to “invalidate” payments made to 24 “higher level” county officials, including board chairman Jeremy Root (R-District 5), Sheriff Brian BeGole, Buildings and Grounds Supervisor Tim Hill, Health Department Director Larry Johnson, County Coordinator Brian Boggs, Finance Director Tracy Bublitz and numerous others that received larger bonuses than rank-and-file employees.
Judge Matthew Stewart has already recused himself from the case, which is being transferred to Genesee County due to conflicts with local officials.
“The inability for the public to first-hand observe and scrutinize, at a public meeting, what is being deliberated and discussed, as it applies to analyzing, discussing, and weighing whether and how 'COVID Hazard Pay' was going to be provided from the American Rescue Plan Act funds, clearly impairs the rights of the public,” the lawsuit states. “By ultimately deciding to distribute funds to various officials and employees instead of using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act for non-employee bonuses, like county expenses and future expected costs, causes the public to suffer a substantial loss.”
Root, when asked about the lawsuit Thursday, said "the facts have been distorted, clearly."
"Everything was done correctly," Root said. "Everything was done in an open meeting. Everything was done in a posted meeting. To enter into closed session, there was motion made. To leave closed session, there was a motion made. There was no motion made (during) closed session.
"This is just another bizarre lawsuit filed by a delusional individual."
Boggs acknowledged this is the fourth lawsuit Ruggiero has filed since he joined the county as coordinator in April 2020.
"She didn't win the last one, it was thrown out of court. We'll see what happens with this one," he said.
Ruggiero said the COVID bonus pay should have gone to front-line workers and not local government officials. She urged residents to attend commissioners' next set of meetings, Aug. 9-12.
“The arrogance of this board is outlandish,” Ruggiero said. “They continue to violate the OMA law despite being sued multiple times. This time, they fattened their pockets while ignoring the real risk county support staff endured for 15 months. Those employees didn’t get to work in their pajamas from home attending Zoom meetings. They interacted with the public. They are the real heroes… It’s high time the public not fear their elected officials and hold them accountable.”
Ellison said in the lawsuit that the COVID hazard pay awarded to employees was not legitimate, since the Shiawassee County Board of Commissioners violated Michigan's OMA by going into an “executive session” July 15 to discuss a “personnel and legal opinion” related to the bonuses.
Commissioner Marlene Webster, R-District 1, said this week she believes the closed session was conducted in violation of the Open Meetings Act and was unaware that commissioners planned to give themselves any money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
She noted the hazard pay was not on any agendas prior to last week’s final meeting. That agenda only listed a personnel matter/legal opinion.
Boggs justified the closed session Tuesday, citing contractual obligations.
“Everyone received a payment. It was not just certain groups that received something, everyone received something, and we have contractual obligations with certain bargaining units and so that is an allowable item,” he said.
The uneven disbursement of hazard pay has sparked controversy in the community, after higher amounts were paid to commissioners and other public officials.
Webster said commissioners were told last week that county employees would receive an average of about $2,100, but she assumed that meant all would receive similar amounts. Instead, while the average is accurate, most of the county’s 250 employees received only about $1,000 before taxes were deducted.
Boggs said the hazard pay amounts were entirely based on an employee’s position, roles, responsibilities throughout the pandemic, and what COVID funding he or she had already received. He pointed to employees’ prior participation in the Work Share Program and relief payments many received under the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act as partial reasoning for the smaller payments this time around.
Elected officials were not eligible for those programs, he said.
Stephan Currie, executive director of the Michigan Association of Counties, told MLive.com that he was “not aware of any other counties considering payments to elected officials, and MAC has not provided any guidance or advice to do so. … Decisions, however, ultimately rest with the county’s board of commissioners in each county.”