Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 13, 2013

Kalkaska officials at odds over recycling center problems

By BRIAN McGILLIVARY
bmcgillivary@record-eagle.com

---- — KALKASKA — There’s a big mess at Kalkaska County’s Recycling Center, and it’s not limited to paper, plastic and scrap metal.

County officials fired recycling center manager Jason Miller in early June and requested a criminal probe after they learned cash and checks that totaled about $2,400 hadn’t been deposited with the county treasurer and instead were located in a desk drawer at the site.

Officials who targeted Miller also alleged he failed to keep records and receipts of fees charged by the center.

County officials also ousted members of the county’s recycling committee for allegedly failing to investigate Miller. Sandy Ruppert, one of the ex-recycling committee members called the situation that unfolded over the past several months “a witch hunt.”

Kalkaska County Commissioner Debra Kimball sparked the recycling center review when she joined the recycling committee in January and asked questions after she couldn’t find records of receipts for the center’s fees. Committee members discovered Miller had stuck a small amount of cash and over $1,800 in checks in a desk drawer. More checks were found later for a total of about $2,400.

The center on Island View Road about half-mile west of the village of Kalkaska accepts all types of paper, glass, cans, metal and batteries for free from residents, but charges a fee for appliances with Freon and tires. Some of the undeposited checks were collected from commercial users or vendors.

Investigation recommended

County attorney Peter Cohl recommended Miller be suspended, an investigation launched, and that Miller be formally notified of pending charges. Three of the five recycling committee members opposed that recommendation.

“When you have legal counsel, you should be following it,” Kimball said. “They refused to follow it, so I took the next step to have them removed.”

Kalkaska’s county board demanded the three committee members resign for failing to investigate the allegations. Diana Needham, a committee member and former county commissioner, resigned in early July, but Ruppert and Thomas Mason refused. The board met Sept. 18 in a session that resembled a trial and removed them for neglect of duty, based on their failure to investigate.

”We didn’t refuse to investigate; we agreed what was done was wrong,” said Ruppert, who served on the recycling committee since its founding. “We wanted to investigate. We didn’t even get the opportunity to investigate.”

Mason and Ruppert said they favored a letter or reprimand of Miller while the investigation was being conducted because Miller worked under a union contract that called for progressive discipline.

”He’s been an employee for 11 or 12 years and never had a black mark on his record,” Ruppert said. “We wanted to investigate first.”

Cohl called it an “unfortunate situation,” but said the committee had an obligation to investigate and failed to do so after learning of the misplaced checks.

Ruppert said Kimball told recycling committee members the county board would overrule their findings anyway, so they decided there was no need to take action.

Mason called the situation “ridiculous.”

”We’re just a recommending body,” he said. “We’re there to catch the flak.”

Board failed to do the job

Mason, who also joined the committee in January, said county board members failed to do their job throughout the recycling center’s history. He cited a lack of written operating policies or procedures for the center since the county acquired it in 2002, and a lack of response from the county board to recommendations.

The county also lacked a job description and list of duties and responsibilities for Miller.

Kimball said the county has general policies for all of its employees.

County board members directed county controller Tracy Nichol to supervise the recycling center and told Nichol to fire Miller for failing to deposit the checks and failing to account for receipts. Miller initially filed a grievance, but then withdrew it.

Miller did not respond to phone messages left on his cell phone.

In addition to the checks, hundreds of old tires were left piled at the site and no record exists that center officials collected a required $3-per tire charge, Cohl said.

"After the gentleman is fired there is an immediate cash flow for tires, refrigerators, and other items,” Cohl said. “Before then, there is a minimal record of cash.”

The county board, at Kimbal’s request, asked Michigan State Police to investigate.

Kalkaska County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Perreault said he’s awaiting a final report from police, at which time he’ll determine whether criminal charges are warranted.