Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

March 6, 2014

Editorial: County board must codify what counts as per diem

The people elected to oversee Grand Traverse County’s government don’t do it for free, They’re paid an annual salary — starting at $7,000 — and, like members of many other public bodies, county commissioners get so-called “per diem” pay for attending meetings and other events. They also get retirement benefits and health, dental and vision insurance or a cash equivalent.

The definition of per diem pay is pretty loose. A 2007 commission resolution defines acceptable per diem events — for which commissioners get $35 — as being “of an informational or educational nature which have a direct relationship to County Commission activities.” Events often include groundbreakings, “meet-and-greets” and employee recognition ceremonies.

Beyond that, defining what qualifies for per diem reimbursement remains an open question. And with this board, a lack of clarity usually means trouble.

Three commissioners — Chairman Herb Lemcool,Vice Chair Addison Wheelock Jr. and Commissioner Charles Renny — recently received letters from a county audit committee charged with vetting per diem requests; committee members asked for some of their 2013 per diems to be paid back. All three flatly refused.

This may seem to be a lot of hubbub about not much. But it’s up to individual board members to ensure that their fellows are not using the per diem system as a personal ATM machine.

Of the three, Renny was asked to repay $355 in what the audit committee considered questionable payments. They included a submission for attending a 10-year anniversary celebration for Northern Lakes Community Mental Health.

In his defense, Renny points to the system’s most basic flaw — the lack of a blanket definition of what qualifies.

Lemcool was asked to repay $175. His questionable events, the committee said, included a volunteers recognition dinner and a chat with Record-Eagle Publisher Neal Ronquist.

Wheelock was asked to repay a single submission — $35 for attending a May ground-breaking at the Depot housing project in Traverse City. He pointed out, and rightly, it seems, that he was justified not only because he’s the commission’s representative on the county’s Land Bank Authority, which donated $300,000 to the project, but he was also the first keynote speaker that day.

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