Chairman Jeremy Root (R-Dist. 5) and Commissioner Marlene Webster (R-Dist. 1)
Thursday, July 15
The Shiawassee Board of Commissioners, Republican representatives of seven county districts, met in Corunna for the monthly board meeting, entering into a closed session to consider a “personnel matter/legal opinion.” Following the closed session, the commissioners voted themselves a combined total of $65,000 in COVID-19 “hazard pay” from American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. Commissioner Gregory Brodeur (R-Dist. 2), sworn-in last January, was absent from the meeting to attend a funeral. Commissioners Cindy Garber (R-Dist. 6) moved and Marlene Webster (R-Dist. 1) seconded the motion and the vote passed 6 to 0.
The item was not posted on the meeting agenda for the public/media. According to Webster, the hazard pay item was not included on any prior agendas before or for the Thursday meeting.
Webster has shared she voiced concern over the closed session, explaining she did not think the hazard pay item fell under “personnel matter/legal opinion” – as it was listed as the reason for the closed session. She believed the commissioners were in violation of the Open Meetings Act once the issue was being discussed in the closed session, but was informed at the time by Shiawassee County Attorney Ryan Painter that the discussion was okay.
Webster also shared she was told on Thursday, July 15, that county employees would receive an approximate $2,100 each, with no mention of any commissioners receiving anything. As it turned out, most of the 250 or so employees received around $1,000 each – some more, some less.
In short, the commissioners (knowingly or unknowingly) voted to distribute the $557,000 to county employees, with $65,000 going to themselves and another large sum going to top-level administrators. Chairman Jeremy Root (R-Dist. 5) was to receive $25,000 and commissioners John Plowman (R-Dist. 7) and Brandon Marks (R-Dist. 4) were to receive $10,000 each. The remaining four commissioners, including Webster, Greg Brodeur, Cindy Garber (R-Dist. 6) and Gary Holzhausen (R-Dist. 3) were each to receive $5,000. Commissioners already receive a salary of $10,000 each. Vice chair Brandon Marks receives $10,500 and Root receives $11,000. Commissioners also receive stipends for attending meetings.
Top-level administrators receiving $25,000 each included Sheriff Brian BeGole, Health Director Larry Johnson, Finance Director Tracy Bublitz, Buildings/Grounds Supervisor Tim Hill and Shiawassee County Coordinator Dr. Brian Boggs. Other department heads were to receive $12,500 each. Middle management was to receive $5,000 each. Chief deputies, the health department and all attorneys were to receive $2,500 each. Cleaning staff were to get $2,000 each and all other employees roughly $1,000 or so each.
In total, the county will be receiving $13.3 million in ARPA funding – with the larger portion yet to come in upcoming months.
The ARPA became federal law in March with the intent to help states, counties and city governments mitigate economic issues from the pandemic. The U.S. Department of the Treasury is responsible for overseeing this program.
Friday, July 16
• Webster shared she was contacted by a constituent over a rumor that the commissioners had voted to pay themselves with some commissioners receiving as much as $25,000. Webster said in a later social media post it seemed to her to be too unbelievable to be true, but she told the constituent she would ask around.
Monday, July 19
• Webster noticed $3,505 ($5,000 minus withholdings) had been deposited in her bank account. She said she “was furious,” believing she “had been blindsided.” She made arrangements to have the funds withdrawn from her account into a cashier’s check. She said she also phoned two other commissioners – Brodeur and Brandon Marks – to inquire. Brodeur excused himself since he was absent from the meeting.
• Webster posted a letter of explanation to her district constituents via Facebook to explain her side of the story. From that point, news sources contacted Webster for further information. In her post, Webster reiterates that it was never mentioned that any money was going to the commissioners, sharing that “there was no breakdown by department or employee group.”
Tuesday, July 20 through Thursday, July 22
• Multiple, local newspapers and media sources were publishing related content.
• Shiawassee County Coordinator Dr. Brian Boggs responded to the Independent with a statement defending the “hazard pay” decision. He explained that the commissioners, according to how the ARPA is set up at the federal level, were not required to give any money to employees and that many employees had already received separate amounts from different funds earlier. He offered that the ARPA funding allows for additional pay up to $13 per hour for all work, though it can’t exceed $25,000 per person. It also can’t reduce or substitute normal earnings, though retroactive pay is permitted. This information was provided to Boggs through an ARPA guide document.
• Commissioner Greg Brodeur emailed a letter to the Independent, published on Sunday, July 25, reflecting his stand regarding the hazard pay issue and the fact he had been absent from the meeting. “Folks, I have only been on the board of commissioners for seven months and in no way do I deserve $5,000 payment for wearing a mask to meetings,” he shared in the letter. Toward the end of his letter, he noted, “I am further saddened by the reality that I have great respect for the work of my fellow commissioners in the years prior to my joining the board. They inherited a county in dire financial condition and through hard work and wise choices have set our community on a financial path that does not lead to eventual bankruptcy …”
• Genesee County Commissioners publically expressed concerns about federal funds going directly to elected county officials. Genesee County is set to receive $78.8 million in ARPA funds in the next few years.
• A lawsuit was filed on Thursday, July 22 on behalf of Shiawassee County residents to invalidate the hazard pay money to commissioners. Nichole Ruggiero, under her attorney, Phil Ellison, filed the lawsuit, also highlighting possible Open Meetings Act violations connected to the Thursday, July 15 meeting.
Ruggiero was previously a longtime resident of Shiawassee County, but now lives in Clinton County.
Friday, July 23 through Wednesday, July 21
• Newspaper, television, internet and radio sources continued publishing related news content, with editorial stories escalating to the state level and then to the Associated Press and NPR – reaching the United Kingdom. Some news sources shared federal authorities were investigating the county vote.
• U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D) offered a public statement. “American Rescue Plan dollars were intended to help frontline workers and families impacted by the pandemic, not elected officials,” he shared, calling out the Shiawassee County Board of Commissioners for potentially using taxpayer dollars inappropriately.
• U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar (R) offered a statement.
• Commissioner Marlene Webster stated she had returned all of the money to the county treasurer via a cashier’s check and shared the information to her constituents via Facebook.
• On Friday, July 23, the Shiawassee County Board of Commissioners released a letter of explanation, drafted by the county coordinator.
• Shiawassee County Sheriff Brian BeGole offered a public statement.
• Shiawassee County Prosecutor Scott Koerner publically stated he believes the payments were not constitutional. A request was made from Koerner, Boggs and Shiawassee County Attorney Ryan Painter on Friday, July 23 for all elected officials to return the money. According to Koerner, all elected officials, including Boggs, agreed.
• On Monday, July 26, the Genesee County judge handling the Ruggiero lawsuit ordered a freeze on payments, granting a preliminary injunction to pull payments back from the commissioners until they meet in public on Aug. 12. Circuit Court Judge Mark Latchana wants the commissioners to reconsider how the money will be redistributed.
Ruggiero was not in court on Monday. She shared in a phone conversation with the Independent on Tuesday that she thinks, “A lot of unethical and unprofessional behaviors happen at the county board level.” She stated, “This felt like it was a complete insult to every taxpayer for them to reward themselves.”
Ruggiero also shared she plans on continuing further with her case. “I’m not afraid of them, where other people are,” she said. “If a public body isn’t held accountable, how do you make long lasting change?”
She encourages people upset over the July 15 meeting to “show up” to meetings. “This board always banks on people forgetting about this stuff.”
Nichole Ruggiero, then Nichole Bruff, ran as a Republican for a commissioner board position in the 2010 election – having an understanding of county politics.
She was involved in filing another suit against the county in 2019, alleging Open Meetings Act violations connected to a county meeting to determine a new treasurer. That case was moved to Clinton County because of conflicts with local officials. The committee selected to determine a new treasurer had interviewed and deliberated candidates in a closed session, then conducting a secret ballot in which Julie Sorenson was chosen as Thomas Dwyer’s successor. The Clinton County Judge ruled the committee had violated the Open Meetings Act in June 2020. A settlement offer was later reached with the county.
• An online petition to remove the board of commissioners was started on change.org and shared across social media platforms.
• On Tuesday, July 27, Brodeur and Webster publically called for Root’s resignation from the Shiawassee County Board of Commissioners.
• Also on Tuesday, July 27, four commissioners, including Webster, arranged a special meeting to be held publically to reconsider the organization of the county board – reflective of Root’s position as chairman. The four commissioners had Shiawassee County Clerk Caroline Wilson (R) formalize the meeting, which is set for Sunday, Aug. 1 at 5 p.m. in Corunna. Wilson emailed the notice to news sources.