CORUNNA — The committee tasked with selecting a replacement for former Shiawassee County Treasurer Thomas Dwyer conducted a second selection meeting after potential violations of the Open Meetings Act were raised regarding the original appointment — but members maintained that they violated no laws in the original selection.
In a redo on the committee’s previous secret ballot, they again chose chief deputy treasurer Julie Sorenson to replace Dwyer. This time, however, they revealed that Probate Judge Thomas Dignan voted for former State Rep. Larry Julian, while Prosecutor Deana Finnegan and Clerk Caroline Wilson supported Sorenson. They also briefly outlined the reasons for their choices, but did not reinterview candidates.
On Sept 18, the committee selected Sorenson to replace Dwyer. The committee, however, interviewed candidates and deliberated in closed session, then conducted a secret ballot vote in open session announcing Sorenson was selected.
The Michigan Open Meetings Act requires interviews and deliberations take place in public, and prohibits secret ballots.
Dignan said at an August meeting that the committee has been given conflicting legal advice as whether or not the committee was subject to the Open Meetings Act and required to make meetings public.
The Michigan OMA, however, states the law applies to “[A]ny state or local legislative or governing body, including a board, commission, committee, subcommittee, authority, or council, that is empowered by state constitution, statute, charter, ordinance, resolution, or rule to exercise governmental or proprietary authority or perform a governmental or proprietary function; a lessee of such a body performing an essential public purpose and function pursuant to the lease agreement.”
The OMA also prohibits a “voting procedure at a public meeting that prevents citizens from knowing how members of a public body have voted.”
The Michigan Constitution requires a three-member committee — the county clerk, prosecuting attorney and probate judge — fill vacancies of county officers.
Committee members said the second meeting was called after The Argus-Press filed a Freedom of Information Act demanding information on any deliberations of the interview process and the roll call of the vote. Wilson said she was unable to produce that information. The officials said they conducted the meeting to make sure they had fully complied with state law.
The committee said the only written records from the Sept. 18 meeting are the official minutes posted online.
At its Sept 18 meeting, the committee revealed five applicants — including Sorenson, Julian, Commissioner Cindy Garber, Venice Township Supervisor Kevin Kingsbury and financier Mindy Brisbane — and gave them a brief time to address the public and the committee before going into closed session to conduct interviews and deliberate amongst themselves.
After opening the meeting back up, they conducted a secret ballot, writing their votes on paper and then announcing Sorenson had received two votes and former State. Rep Larry Julian received one. The committee did not reveal which members voted for which candidate.
When asked if the county’s lawyer had advised the committee of any Open Meetings Act violations, Dignan said, “ I would not get into attorney-client communications.”
He said he did not know if the secret ballot was a violation, but Finnegan said she believed it was not.
“It was my position that there was nothing wrong with the Open Meetings Act and therefore we would pursue under its guidelines,” Dignan said to begin the meeting. “Then we conducted a hearing and we made our selection and since then we have been questioned as to whether or not we violated the Open Meetings Act. I leave that issue unresolved. However as I stated the last time, to err on the side of caution I felt it prudent to reconvene tonight and conform completely with the Open Meetings Act
He apparently was unaware the interviews took place in closed session until it was pointed out to him Thursday by The Argus-Press.
“One thing that I heard second hand was that we excluded the public during the interview process and that is not true,” he claimed. However, Finnegan informed Dignan the interviews did, in fact, take place in closed session.
“If I could respond so that everyone understands it was not a violation of the Open Meetings Act to interview each applicant in closed session,” Finnegan said. “Interviews can be held in closed session. I think the only question was the method in which we selected the voting process.”
The Act states, ” …all interviews by a public body for employment or appointment to a public office shall be held in an open meeting pursuant to this act.”
Before Thursday’s vote, the committee members explained why they chose the candidate they supported in an effort to comply with the Open Meetings Act.
No interviews took place; committee members relied on their past interviews that took place in closed session to inform their decisions.
Dignan said the committee was not required to interview candidates at all.
“I could appoint my son if I wanted to,” he said.
Dignan said he voted for Julian because he was the only candidate who said he would not run for the office, which would leave no incumbent in place for the 2020 election.
“I was very impressed with Julie Sorenson because I believe the county needs continuity in that office and I think that’s an important thing to get us through a difficult time,” Finnegan said.
“I was glad we had interest from other people outside beside the chief deputy and (Garber). I was thrilled we had three other individuals who were willing to step up,” Wilson said.
During public comment Thursday, Garber, R-District 6, and Commissioner Gary Holzhausen, R-District 3, spoke of their dissatisfaction with the process.
Garber said she believed the decision to select Sorenson was made in advance and the committee had wasted people’s time.
“My understanding with the chief deputy in any elected position whether it’s at the township level or the county is that the chief deputy, in the absence of that elected official is to perform all statutory duties. I don’t feel that has been done in the treasurer’s office,” Garber said.
“I take exception with Miss Garber saying everything was decided in advance,” Dignan replied. “I read that in the paper, at least today she said it to my face.”
Holzhausen questioned the need to go into closed session at all.
“I think every meeting should be open but that’s just my opinion. But everyone goes into closed sessions for everything and you guys did, and did naughty things,” Holzhausen said
“I don’t know if I’d admit to naughtiness…I think there’s been controversy with the Open Meetings Act, even at the county commission,” Dignan said.
Commissioner Jeremy Root, R-District 5, said the board should have selected someone without plans to seek office in 2020.
“The committee should have selected a candidate that would just have served out the remainder of the term and then let the voters decide. Being an incumbent gives you an advantage in a race and now the incumbent plans to run,” he said.
Sorenson said this week she plans to seek election as a Republican next year. Sorenson attended, but did not speak at the meeting. No other candidates attended the meeting.