Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 12, 2013

Benzie Bus director ousted

BY GLENN PUIT gpuit@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — HONOR — Susan Miller is out as director of the Benzie Bus, a move that enraged supporters who viewed Miller as the heart and soul of the rural public transit system.

The Benzie Bus Board of Directors dumped Miller in a 6 to 3 vote Tuesday night during a contentious, emotionally charged meeting. The board voted against renewing Miller’s contract, then authorized a 90-day payout and gave Miller two days to clean out her office.

No official reason was given for the decision.

“It’s painful,” a tearful Miller said after the meeting. “Very painful. If they could point to what I did wrong, that would be one thing, (but) we have no idea. We’ve never been told.”

The decision to let Miller go -- and a lack of a formal explanation as to why it occurred -- did not sit well with 40-plus people who showed up to support her. A handful of speakers told the board “Shame on you!” after the decision was finalized.

“I’m just devastated,” said one of Miller’s supporters, Marianne Hill. “I don’t understand.”

Benzie Bus employee Jerry Boyle said Miller is popular with both bus drivers and riders and that the decision to let her go is a mistake.

“Look around,” Boyle said. “This is the house that Sue Miller built.”

Some clues as to why Miller was let go could be found in interviews with Miller and generic comments made by some board members. Miller said she previously clashed with the board regarding members’ decision to give a former employee a raise without consulting her. Miller said that employee later resigned and made what Miller described as false allegations against her regarding her management style.

“The next thing I know I’m on a corrective action plan,” Miller said.

Miller said she also disagreed with some board members on the role and mission of the Benzie Bus, which receives financing through a public millage renewed in 2011 and which raised roughly $540,000 in property taxes a year. Miller said she believes the bus should first serve the immediate needs of county residents such as seniors and the indigent, primarily through a dial-a-ride service.

Some board members, she said, want to incorporate the bus into a regional transit system that emphasizes direct routes that are more convenient to workforce riders.

Miller said the latter strategy isn’t working. A connector that runs straight through the county and connects with the Bay Area Transit Authority in Interlochen for a direct route into Traverse City is largely empty and causes the agency to lose money.

“They started the rapid route against our recommendation,” Miller said. “We told them very possibly because of the cost that it could end up costing us other services, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Longtime Benzie Bus Board Member Ingemar Johansson voted against renewing Miller’s contract. He said he supports a bus system that meets both local needs and fits into a regional transit system that shares resources.

“I’m basing my vote on what I believe is in the best interests of the citizens of Benzie County,” Johansson said, adding he didn’t want a bus system that serves only “people in poverty and not just people who don’t have a car.”

Tom Menzel, director of BATA, said he was “extremely surprised” Miller was let go.

“I know she had a board that was very, very involved in operations, perhaps more than they should have been,” Menzel said. “Our experience with her was very, very positive.”

The board originally proposed a confidential departure agreement with Miller through a letter sent by attorney Christopher Cooke to Miller. Miller rejected the overture.

“I just told them I don’t need any of these things they are offering me,” Miller said. “I don’t need this stuff. I’m not going to shut my mouth. It was really an effort to get to me to leave and be quiet.”