EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to include a statement issued by Sheriff Brian BeGole late Saturday after The Argus-Press went to press.
CORUNNA — The Shiawassee County Board of Commissioners came under fire this past week after news broke that commissioners gave themselves a combined $65,000 in bonuses using federal COVID-19 relief funds under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
Since then, the situation has changed dramatically, with a lawsuit filed and the commissioners finally agreeing to repay the money because the county prosecutor said the payments were illegal.
Here’s a look at how we got to this point.
The Shiawassee County Board of Commissioners convened for its monthly full board meeting July 15, during which commissioners entered a closed session to discuss a “personnel matter/legal opinion.”
The hazard pay was not included on any agendas prior to the July 15 meeting. Commissioner Marlene Webster, R-District 1, said she took issue with the closed session, believing it was in violation of the Open Meetings Act, once she was aware of what was being discussed.
“I protested. We should not be in here. We should not be in closed session. It wasn’t a union negotiation,” she said. “They said (county attorney) Ryan Painter said it was OK.”
Webster claimed commissioners were told July 15 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 apparently received only about $1,000.
Board Chairman Jeremy Root, R-District 5, called the meeting back to open session after all spectators had left and conducted what Webster described as a “perfunctory” open session before a vote.
“It was a sham to appear it was in open session,” she said.
Once in open session, commissioners voted 6-0 to approve the disbursement of American Rescue Plan Act funds, which included “hazard pay for county employees, (a) county budget stabilization plan, (a) prosecutor case management plan and county legal services.” Commissioner Greg Brodeur, R-District 2, was absent from the July 15 meeting due to a death in the family.
Commissioners voted to disburse $557,000 to employees — with the largest share going to themselves and other elected officials rather than employees. Top-level administrators received larger payments — up to $25,000 — while frontline employees garnered only $1,000 to $2,500.
A funding breakdown written by county Coordinator Brian Boggs shows those receiving the maximum $25,000 payment included Root, Sheriff Brian BeGole, Health Director Larry Johnson, Buildings and Grounds Supervisor Tim Hill, Finance Director Tracy Bublitz and Boggs.
Commissioners John Plowman, R-District 7, and Brandon Marks, R-District 4, received $10,000 each, and the remaining commissioners — Webster, Brodeur, Gary Holzhausen, R-District 3, and Cindy Garber, R-District 6, each received $5,000.
Commissioners’ yearly salaries are set at $10,000, with the vice chairman earning $10,500 and the chairman $11,000.
Treasurer Julie Sorenson, Register of Deeds Lori Kimble, Prosecutor Scott Koerner, Undersheriff Cory Carson and Clerk Caroline Wilson received hazard payments of $12,500. Drain Commissioner Tony Newman (the only elected Democrat) received $2,500, while Surveyor William Wascher, 66th District Court Judge Ward Clarkson, Probate Court Judge Thomas Dignan and 35th Circuit Court Judge Matthew Stewart received nothing. The Road Commission also was left out entirely.
The rest of the county’s 200-plus employees received mostly $2,500 or $1,000 from the $557,000 payout.
After a resident mentioned commissioners getting money, Webster checked her bank account Monday and discovered the $3,305 in relief funding had been deposited — $5,000 minus tax withholding. She told her husband to withdraw the money in the form of a cashier’s check and returned it to the county Thursday.
Webster took to her commissioner Facebook page to shed light on the situation, detailing her frustration with the closed session and subsequent vote that followed. Tuesday morning, she called The Argus-Press.
“When I saw the agenda items, I protested that we should not be in closed session for this. After about 15 minutes of discussion on this and other matters, Chairman (Jeremy) Root (R-District 5) agreed that we should take this into open session,” Webster wrote in a Tuesday Facebook post. “There was some minimal discussion in open session and then we voted. NOT ONCE was it ever mentioned that any of this money was going to commissioners. There was no breakdown by department or employee group. Only this average of $2,148.00 per employee was presented and seemed reasonable to me.”
Other officials offered varied reactions.
Newman declined to go into specifics Tuesday when asked about the hazard pay disbursements, saying only: “It should have been the same for everybody, right across the board.”
Sorenson said Tuesday it was “interesting” that individuals received different amounts, though she declined to comment further.
Brodeur, in a letter submitted to The Argus-Press, said he was opposed to the hazard pay bonuses. It was, he wrote, quite a surprise Monday when he learned from Webster that he had received a $5,000 bonus as part of the COVID relief.
“Folks, I have only been on the board of commissioners for seven months and in no way do I deserve a $5,000 payment for wearing a mask to meetings,” he wrote. “Next week, I am donating the money to a local charity because there is no good way to return money to the county. Maybe some good that way can come out of this nonsense.”
Holzhausen Saturday described the COVID-19 relief funding controversy as “a big mixed-up mess.”
“I guess Marlene got things all stirred up and I don’t know what’s going on,” he said via phone. “I really don’t know … I don’t know what to tell you.”
The controversy ultimately caught the attention of U.S. representatives John Moolenaar and Dan Kildee, who both criticized the disbursement of funds.
“It’s wrong, and I will be working in the coming days to address this issue with legislation and protect taxpayers,” Moolenaar, a Republican, said in an emailed statement Friday.
“In March, Republicans argued for a targeted approach to help in our nation’s fight against COVID-19,” he continued. “However, Democrats in Congress insisted on a partisan $2-trillion spending bill that sent $350 billion to states and communities regardless of whether or not those communities needed the money. Those Democrats failed to put in safeguards against wasteful spending and now local elected officials are inappropriately using the money from the $2 trillion bill.”
Kildee, a Flint Democrat, also criticized the payments this week, telling media outlets they violated the spirit of the federal payments.
“American Rescue Plan dollars were intended to help frontline workers and families impacted by the pandemic, not elected officials,” Kildee said. “I do not believe that the Shiawassee County Board of Commissioners’ use of American Rescue Plan funds are an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.”
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.”
Sheriff Brian BeGole said he was not expecting to be included in the payments.
"While I was aware that the county had received the grant funding and the Board of Commissioners were considering the allocation, I was not a part of this process," he said. "Also, at no time did I ask or expect any compensation for my work during the pandemic, as the elected Sheriff.
"Because of our county employee’s and selfless dedication, I believe that all county employees should receive a fair compensation from the ARPA funds for hardships endured over the last year," BeGole's statement continued. "This week the county, with my authorization, will withdraw the funds dispersed from the ARPA grant I received. I want to remain transparent to the residents of Shiawassee County and maintain the integrity of the Office of Sheriff."
Neither Marks nor Plowman responded to repeated phone calls seeking comment.
Boggs defended the county board’s COVID-19 hazard pay Tuesday, explaining the decisions were entirely based on an employee’s position, roles, responsibilities throughout the pandemic, and what COVID funding he or she had already received.
Boggs 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, he said, were not eligible for those programs.
Furthermore, a premium payments provision under the American Rescue Plan Act allows for additional pay up to $13 per hour for all work, Boggs explained. Payments cannot exceed $25,000 per person and cannot reduce or substitute normal earnings, he said, noting retroactive pay is allowed.
“These numbers weren’t established in some willy-nilly manner,” Boggs said.
Boggs said he met with Plowman and Root to discuss the payments. There was no indication the proposal to consider such payments ever came before the full board.
Boggs also justified the July 15 closed session, 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.
Garber, in an interview with MLive Tuesday, said she had “no intention of returning the money” she was granted, adding it “pales in comparison” to the additional funds hourly employees received through unemployment and other pandemic-related relief programs. She accused Webster of “crying like a teenage girl” about the funding distribution.
“I am going to follow (President Joe Biden’s) advice and spend the money. That’s what it’s for … stimulate the economy,” she said.
Root claimed everything took place in open session and was above board.
“Everything was done correctly,” he said Thursday. “Everything was done in an open meeting. Everything was done in a posted meeting.”
Owosso resident Nichole Ruggiero Thursday filed a lawsuit in 35th Circuit Court alleging commissioners violated Michigan’s Open Meetings Act.
Attorney Philip Ellison, who represents Ruggiero, is seeking an immediate ex parte hearing in circuit court to “invalidate” payments made to 24 “higher level” county officials, including Root, BeGole, Hill, Johnson, Boggs, Bublitz and numerous others that received larger bonuses than rank-and-file employees.
Thirty-fifth Circuit Court Judge Matthew Stewart recused himself from the case, which was transferred to Genesee County.
“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.”
“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,” he said.
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.
After nearly a week of intense criticism from area residents, commissioners and all other county elected officials agreed Friday to return their COVID-19 hazard payments in response to an opinion issued by Koerner.
Koerner, in an emailed statement, said the Michigan Constitution forbids elected officials from taking such payments.
Article 11, Section 3 of the Constitution prohibits “any political subdivision” of Michigan from paying out “extra compensation for public officers and contractors after services had already been rendered,” he said.
In response, commissioners issued a joint statement announcing their intention to return the funds to the county.
“Since these payments were made, confusion about the nature of these funds has run rampant,” the statement said. “(We) deeply regret that this gesture has been misinterpreted, and have unanimously decided to voluntarily return the funds to the county, pending additional guidance from the state of Michigan.”
Boggs, despite not being an elected official, said he, too, will return his $25,000 payment to the county “out of solidarity with the commissioners.”
While Webster agreed in a phone conversation with Boggs Friday that all elected officials should return their hazard pay funds, she took issue with the way the commissioners’ statement was worded.
“We did NOT misinterpret these actions. That’s an insult to the citizens of Shiawassee County,” Webster wrote in a Facebook post Friday evening. “If anything was MISINTERPRETED, it was MY vote! Somebody decided that my vote to give an average of $2,148 to county employees meant that I would be okay with giving $1,000 to 90 percent of employees so a few at the top could take $25,000 for themselves.”
Holzhausen Saturday said he was unaware commissioners had agreed to return the funds.
“Is that what they decided?” he asked. “That’s news to me.”
Ruggiero’s lawsuit will proceed Monday, with a show cause hearing scheduled for 11:30 a.m. in Genesee County.
Commissioners will reconvene Aug. 9-12.
Meetings begin at 5 p.m. inside the Surbeck Building.