Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 28, 2012

Editorial: Public often pays to right government's wrongs


---- — Ed Rice and Mary Gillis are back in the news — for all the wrong reasons — after losing their local government jobs this year.

And local taxpayers will be counted upon to right real or perceived wrongs directed at the ex-leaders of Traverse City Light & Power and the Grand Traverse County Road Commission.

Gillis, who'd managed the road commission, just agreed to a $35,000 settlement with the commission's board, following three board members' ham-handed, year-long effort to shove her out of office. That board eventually voted against renewing Gillis' contract, which expired in October.

She contended, in part, that road board members made false public statements about her and damaged her reputation.

Rice, Light & Power's former executive director, this month informed Traverse City officials he intends to sue over alleged defamatory statements Light & Power board members directed at him during his Waterloo moment at a November meeting, including claims he lied to the board.

He'll eventually either wrangle a parting gift payment, or Light & Power will have to pour a chunk of change into defending itself.

Rice and Gillis had detractors and supporters on their respective boards, and a panoramic view of each case suggests power struggles between board factions played at least as much of a role in their demise as did their job performances. In both cases it appears new board majorities needed to claim the incumbent director's scalp to cement control of their agencies.

Rice and Gillis had their good and bad points. Cases could have been made against their continued employment, though without the hostility and badly conceived public attacks they encountered. Both were at-will employees; their job protections in large part were limited to their abilities to gauge political winds and soothsay board members.

But the hackneyed, anti-Gillis scheming displayed by the road commission board majority undermined any chance of a clean exit strategy with her. So the board signed off on the $35,000 deal to cauterize its self-inflicted wounds and save individual board members from potential embarrassment if she sued them.

Light & Power board members likely stepped in it, too, particularly those who accused Rice of lying to them. That's a serious charge, and if not proven, could provide Rice a hefty retirement bonus.

The cases against Rice and Gillis demanded research, restraint and by-the-book examinations of job performance versus agreed-upon job expectations. There's ample evidence board majorities failed in both instances, and taxpayers are left to clean up the mess.