TRAVERSE CITY — Fife Lake Village council members were immersed in a discussion of citizens’ complaints about the Bay Area Transportation Authority’s service in Fife Lake when Grand Traverse County Commissioner Charlie Renny decided to interrupt.
“It was council discussion, and it was an agenda item, and he proceeded to call my citizens and my council names,” Fife Lake village President Lisa Leedy said of the meeting last spring.
“Whiners” was Renny’s insult of choice, Leedy said, and she called Renny out-of-order for his remarks.
The incident didn’t end there. After the meeting, Renny wheeled around the council table for an “up-close” discussion with Leedy about the earlier exchange, she said.
“My perception was, that was threatening,” Leedy said. “Whether that was his intention or not, I’m not sure.”
That confrontation is among a handful of similar instances involving Renny since he took office in 2013, said other local public officials, who contend he crossed a line with aggressive and inappropriate behavior spawned by disagreements.
Renny downplayed the severity of each instance and characterized them as “heated disagreements” from “contentious issues and contentious times.”
“Obviously, folks think I come on a little strong, and that’s obviously something I would not try to do to anybody,” Renny said. “I work on it everyday.”
Renny said he did not refer to anyone as “whiners” during the Fife Lake council meeting.
“I said, ‘whining about this will not help. Let’s try to have some positive input on this,’” Renny said.
He also denied his comment to Leedy following the meeting could be perceived as threatening. Renny said he was trying to apologize.
Renny, who joined the Grand Traverse County board following an unopposed election in 2012, said he works hard as a commissioner, and his constituents know what he does.
“They know without doubt,” he said. “That’s why we have elections.”
Marc McKellar, a member of the Grand Traverse County Road Commission, said he was present at a townhall meeting in August hosted by U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, when two men began a heated exchange.
McKellar said he did not see exactly what transpired, but later learned Renny was one of the participants in the argument. Whatever happened was serious enough to draw the attention of law enforcement officers already present at the event, McKellar said.
“There’s heated exchanges and differences of opinion, but I understand this was a little more scary, “ McKellar said.
Renny described the exchange between himself and the other man, whom he did not know, as “a very innocuous thing.” Renny said it involved “politics” though he did not remember what specifically was said, and police did not need to intervene.
“I wouldn’t say I got angry, no,” Renny said. “And I wouldn’t say he got angry because nothing happened.”
Members of the Grand Traverse County Commission offered similar accounts of what they said is Renny’s hot temper.
Commissioner Christine Maxbauer, a member of a commission committee that reviews all county expenses, said Renny once confronted her after she refused to sign off on an expense he submitted to the county for reimbursement.
“He backed me in to a corner once in the second floor conference room because I would not approve his expense,” she said. “He got extremely angry, and the word ‘bully’ comes to mind.”
Maxbauer refused to discuss the specific expense, and said she did not remember when the confrontation occurred, but she said the exchange was not an isolated problem.
Renny said the incident to which Maxbauer referred never happened.
“I’m not saying anyone is making anything up, but I don’t know what she is talking about,” Renny said.
No one disagrees about Renny’s confrontation with another county commissioner during a closed session board meeting last year.
Renny and Commissioner Larry Inman got into an argument, but accounts about what exactly transpired differ.
“Larry was going down one road, Charlie was going down another, and Charlie wanted to take (Inman) outside in the hall and settle it,” Maxbauer said. “He said that.”
Maxbauer described Renny as “angry” and “aggressive,” and said he also exchanged words with Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley, who was present at the meeting.
“It seems to me, that in the closed session, Tom Bensley was sitting in there and was close to arresting him,” Maxbauer said.
Inman described the confrontation differently.
He said the closed session meeting was ending when Renny made a remark about past boards mismanaging the county’s budget.
“I corrected him, and he just kind of turned around and glared at me and loudly screamed at me,” Inman said. “I didn’t know what to make of it.”
Inman said Renny continued to stare at him as he backed up toward a wall. Renny then turned toward Bensley.
“My recollection is he said something to the sheriff like ‘are you going to arrest me, or what,’” Inman said. “The sheriff just stared at him.”
Other county officials present at the closed session meeting would not comment on what transpired, including Administrator Dave Benda and Bensley.
“I think that was a closed session and I don’t have any comment,” Bensley said, citing advice from county attorney Christopher Forsyth.
Renny declined to talk about what specifically happened at the closed session, but said he discussed the argument with Inman afterward.
“I told Larry and a couple of other people on this board that when it comes to the taxpayer, I will back the taxpayer, and I’ll get loud, if necessary,” Renny said. “That’s what happened in that situation.”
Renny and Inman exchanged cross words from their commission seats on several other occasions, usually about the management of the county budget in recent years.
Inman and Renny’s wife Karen Renny are opponents in the August Republican primary for the local state House seat, but both men said their spats aren’t related to the upcoming election.
Renny said he’s most upset with the county board’s financial decisions, including the approval late last year of a 2014 budget that included a sizable structural deficit without any corresponding budget cuts.
“This is what is upsetting to me; this is pushed down the road like it has been for a number of years.” he said. “Everybody knows it. At some point you are going to have to face it.”