EDITOR’S NOTE: Newsmakers 2013 profiles people, places and events that made news in the Grand Traverse region during the past year.
TRAVERSE CITY — What started as a slap on the wrist for a local public school over state campaign finance law violations could become far more serious in 2014.
It’s been more than eight months since Michigan’s Secretary of State ruled Traverse City Area Public Schools violated Michigan’s Campaign Finance Act when it spent public funds to promote its 2012 capital projects millage. Officials from TCAPS and the state have yet to reach an informal resolution to the violation, and criminal charges against the district or its officers could be on the horizon if the parties remain at an impasse.
“The next thing we expect to see is it will go to the attorney general’s office,” said Jason Gillman the former Grand Traverse County commissioner and tea party activist who in late 2012 lodged a complaint against TCAPS.
Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education President Kelly Hall said Gillman’s expectations are way off-base.
“I’ve heard nothing to that effect, and I have no reason to believe that’s true,” Hall said.
Michigan’s Campaign Finance Act prohibits the use of public money to promote or denounce a ballot question.
District officials maintained that any violations of campaign finance laws were unintentional, but the Secretary of State sided with Gillman in April.
Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams said the case would be referred to the Attorney General’s office for criminal prosecution only if discussions between the two parties break down, which is not likely. Woodhams would not discuss details of resolution talks or estimate when discussions might conclude.
TCAPS Superintendent Stephen Cousins said one of the district’s attorneys provided information about the flyers to the state officials in August or September. Cousins added the attorney expected any disciplinary actions from the state to be minor.
“A minimum fine paid by me, probably, and that might be it, but he was really guessing,” Cousins said.
Cousins previously took responsibility for the illegal campaign material’s publication.
The Secretary of State complaint played out while Gillman and the district were entangled in another legal battle related to Michigan’s Open Meetings Act.
Gilman filed a lawsuit in early 2013 that accused TCAPS of “misleading the public” as to the time and place of a public meeting. A separate charge filed in May accused Cousins of entering into exchange program “contracts” with two Chinese schools in November 2012, even though board members neither deliberated nor decided in a public meeting to authorize the agreements.
The lawsuit was settled in October. Gillman received $10,600 from the district’s Lansing-based insurance company toward his attorney costs. In exchange, a handful of Open Meetings Act violation charges were dropped, and both parties agreed TCAPS officials “substantially complied” with government transparency laws.
Gillman said the lawsuit was a success because it prompted the board to be more open with the public.
Hall said the board has always been open and is one of the most transparent public bodies in northern Michigan.
“Mr. Gillman can say whatever he wants, but that lawsuit didn’t change anything,” she said.