CORUNNA — The Shiawassee County Election Commission Tuesday approved recall petition language against county commissioners Jeremy Root, R-District 5, Cindy Garber, R-District 6, and John Plowman, R-District 7, after ruling it was clear and factual.
Probate Judge Thomas Dignan, Clerk Caroline Wilson and Treasurer Julie Sorenson voted unanimously to approve the petition language against the three commissioners. Affected commissioners have 10 days to appeal the board’s decision.
Root and Garber did not attend Tuesday’s public hearing, and no attorneys were present on their behalf. Plowman attended, but declined to speak, deferring to his attorney Michael J. Plowman.
The petition language filed by Jeff Reed (District 5), Don Goetschy (District 6) and Matt Shepard (District 7) seeks the removal of Root, Garber and Plowman: “For the betrayal of public trust with unethical conduct unbecoming of an elected official (under) the National Association of Counties’ Code of Ethics and Principles; misappropriation of taxpayers’ money from the American Rescue Plan Act for (himself/herself) violating Michigan’s Constitution (MCL Article 11, Section 3) which prohibits paying in excess what elected officials, including other unqualified individuals, have been duly compensated; depriving the public information by holding a closed session contrary to the Open Meetings Act (MCL 15.628); malfeasance for knowingly doing wrong against the people.”
“A long journey begins with a first step,” Reed said moments after Tuesday’s hearing. “We got through it. I’m proud of all of the people who helped me out. We did it all as a team.”
The push to unseat commissioners Root, Garber and Plowman comes after a July 15 meeting during which commissioners voted — following a legally questionable closed session — to give themselves and other county elected officials COVID-19 hazard pay bonuses using federal relief funds under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
Of the $557,000 that was disbursed, a large portion of the funds went to commissioners and other elected officials. Root received $25,000; Plowman and Commissioner Brandon Marks, R-District 4, received $10,000 each, and the remaining commissioners — Garber, Marlene Webster, R-District 1, Greg Brodeur, R-District 2, and Gary Holzhausen, R-District 3, each received $5,000.
A Genesee County judge has since ordered county officials to repay the bonuses. The judge’s order was officially signed and received by the county Aug. 12.
All county elected officials have returned the funds, according to County Coordinator Brian Boggs, and the remaining employees who received a bonus of $5,000 or more were instructed to do the same following the receipt of the Aug. 12 order, he said.
“I feel it would be much better upon the taxpayers if (the commissioners) would just resign and save the taxpayers this added cost to the county,” Shepard said during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s hearing.
Michael J. Plowman, representing his father, claimed the actual reasons stated in the petition language were “very vague.”
“They’re not really numbered. I’m not really sure how many reasons are there,” he said. “Some of the things in there, ‘betrayal of the public trust with unethical conduct unbecoming of an elected official’ in violation of the National Association of Counties’ code, what part of the code is not mentioned.”
Plowman also indicated multiple citations within the petition, including a reference to the Open Meetings Act, were incorrect. The final clause, “malfeasance for knowingly doing wrong against the people,” was simply an opinion, he added.
“I mean, we say that about a lot of elected officials at a lot of bars all around Shiawassee County. I’m not really sure it belongs in a petition,” Plowman said. “Vague points, not factual, not concise, not clear … That’s why the petition should not be granted.”
Dignan explained that while the statute governing recall petitions is “really demanding and seems to be a bit unbendable,” recent precedent through published and unpublished opinions of the Michigan Court of Appeals suggests the language needs to be read as a whole for interpretations of factualness and clarity.
“I was most concerned about that final sentence clause: ‘Malfeasance for knowingly doing wrong against the people,’” Dignan said. “That sounds more opinion based, but again, without getting too much into grammar, it is one part of a sentence that states fairly, factually and clearly what the reasons are for the recall.”
Wilson and Sorenson agreed the petition language met clarity and factual standards.
Reed and fellow recall committee member Anthony Karhoff indicated Tuesday they plan to wait to collect signatures until after the 10-day appeal period has passed.
The number of signatures needed for a recall election is greater than or equal to 25 percent of the registered voters in a given district who participated in the last gubernatorial election — in this case, November 2018. In District 5, this would equate to about 1,130 signatures; in District 6, 1,038 signatures; and in District 7, 1,115 signatures.
A petitioner has 180 days to collect signatures, though signatures submitted must be no more than 60 days old, Wilson said.
If a petitioner achieves the required signatures within the allotted time, and those signatures are subsequently verified by the county clerk, the recall process can proceed.
The elected commissioner at that point would have 10 days to resign. If the commissioner declined to step down, their name would automatically go on the ballot — alongside individual nominees from the county’s Democratic and Republican parties — for a recall election, Wilson said.
The soonest a recall election could take place would be May 2022. All county commissioners are up for election in November 2022.