Traverse City Record-Eagle

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December 26, 2013

Lathrop stands by vote despite possible ethics code violation

TRAVERSE CITY — A Grand Traverse County commissioner won't back off a vote that other officials said violated the county's ethics policy.

Commissioner Dan Lathrop said he stands by his decision to vote in a commission committee's 4 to 3 approval of an agreement that grants county Drain Commissioner Kevin McElyea authority to administer some township storm water ordinances. Lathrop's relationship with McElyea prompted questions about whether Lathrop's vote constituted a conflict of interest.

Lathrop lives with and co-owns a house with McElyea. He maintained this week he did nothing wrong based on the opinions of two attorneys he consulted in the aftermath of the Dec. 11 meeting when he cast his vote.

"It boils down to, as far as I know, that if I vote, I don’t break any laws, ethically or legally," Lathrop said.

Lathrop's vote was legal under Michigan law, according to a memo prepare by Bob Cooney, the county's civil counsel and prosecuting attorney. But the ethical standing of Lathrop's decision not to abstain is less clear.

The county's code of ethics requires officials to "avoid all situations where prejudice, bias, or opportunity for personal gain could influence there decisions."  Even the appearance of improper conduct should be avoided, according to the memo.

Cooney said he believes Lathrop should have abstained, based on the ethics code.

"I think it does create an appearance of impropriety and I've told him that," Cooney said.

But Cooney's memo to board members doesn't say that, and county policy neither subjects commissioners to disciplinary actions for ethics code violations nor prevents them from voting on matters when a potential conflict of interest exists. The memo concludes that "only Lathrop can make the decision whether to abstain from voting" based upon the applicable laws and policies.

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