CORUNNA — Shiawassee County Commissioner Gregory Brodeur is calling for board Chairman Jeremy Root’s resignation, given the “disrepute (Root’s) actions have brought upon himself, our community and the office he holds.”
The county board came under fire this past week after news broke that, following a legally questionable closed session July 15, commissioners gave themselves a combined $65,000 in bonuses using federal COVID-19 relief funds under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Since then a lawsuit has been filed against them for an OMA violation and commissioners agreed Friday to repay the money because the county prosecutor said the payments were illegal.
As part of the lawsuit, Genesee County Circuit Court Judge Mark Latchana Monday issued a preliminary injunction against the board, ordering COVID-19 hazard payments greater than $5,000 be returned until a new public vote is conducted by commissioners.
Brodeur, R-District 2, who did not attend the July 15 meeting due to a death in the family, said the facts surrounding the uneven disbursement of funds are “deeply disturbing.”
“Board Chair Jeremy Root’s (R-District 5) decision to withhold information regarding his own egregious $25,000 bonus and the outsized amounts he awarded others is inexcusable and has destroyed his ability to effectively lead our county board,” Brodeur said in an emailed statement to The Argus-Press. “I am certain after interactions with my colleagues that beyond myself and Commissioner Marlene Webster (R-District 1), some other commissioners were denied crucial details as to the scope and nature of bonuses which were to be granted to them.”
Brodeur is calling on Root to resign his post as board chairman and District 5 commissioner immediately, describing the move as “an important step in the long road toward restored integrity for the Shiawassee (County) Board of Commissioners.”
A voicemail left with Root Monday was not immediately returned.
The controversy began after the board’s 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. Webster 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.
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 to $2,500.
Root received $25,000, as did County Coordinator Brian Boggs, Health Director Larry Johnson, Sheriff Brian BeGole, Buildings and Ground Supervisor Tim Hill and Finance Director Tracy Bublitz. 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.
Brodeur said it was “quite a shock” when he received a call from Webster in the days following the July 15 meeting informing him he’d received a $5,000 bonus, and others received more.
“How could this happen without my knowing? I’m a commissioner,” Brodeur said via phone Monday. “I was at the three previous meetings. I’m available all the time.”
Brodeur acknowledged most commission work is relatively perfunctory, but when an item is brought to the agenda that’s expected to draw considerable discussion or controversy, commissioners are generally briefed. That was not the case with the disbursement of the COVID-19 relief funds, he said.
“How is it $25,000 to the chairman and $5,000 to me? I’ve been on the board for seven months. Why would I get a $5,000 bonus? It makes no sense,” Brodeur said. “The more I found out about it, the more I looked into it, the more upset I got.”
Over the course of the past week, Brodeur said he’s had numerous conversations with fellow board members in an effort to piece together the events of July 15. In the end, he said, all things point to Root, whom he believes was the “main driver in deciding the (hazard pay) amounts” — at least for commissioners.
“If we wanted to give ourselves bonuses, it should have been very public, discussed very publicly,” Brodeur said. “If you’re not feeling that there’s anything wrong, then talk about it publicly.”
Commissioners and all county elected officials agreed to return their COVID-19 hazard payments Friday, in part due to a statement from county Prosecutor Scott Koerner indicating the payments to county elected officials, including a $12,500 payment he received, violated the Michigan Constitution.
Boggs, despite not being an elected official, said he, too, would return his $25,000 payment to the county “out of solidarity with the commissioners.”
In response to the vote and payments, Owosso resident Nichole Ruggiero Thursday filed a lawsuit in 35th Circuit Court alleging commissioners violated Michigan’s Open Meetings Act in discussing the hazard payments in closed session. Thirty-fifth Circuit Court Judge Matthew Stewart recused himself from the case, which was transferred to Genesee County.
Latchana, in his ruling Monday, said commissioners likely violated the Open Meetings Act by not discussing the payments in a public hearing.
At this time, commissioners are slated to meet at 5 p.m. Aug. 9-12 inside the Surbeck Building.
While he can’t speak to the legality of the closed session because he wasn’t there, Brodeur said he does feel the disbursement of COVID-19 relief funding was “unethical” and “handled the wrong way.”
“I have lost any confidence I had in chairman Root to lead the board of commissioners,” Brodeur said. “The damage this has done to our credibility is really, really bad.”