Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 13, 2013

Editorial: Benzie Bus board owes public explanation


Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — Benzie County residents who pay more than $500,000 a year in property taxes to support Benzie Bus, the county’s only public transportation system, would probably like to know why the system’s governing board fired long-time director Susan Miller.

What Miller and taxpayers got — and apparently all they’re going to get — is a lot of nothing.

At a contentious meeting Tuesday, the board voted 6-3 to not renew Miller’s contract, gave her two days to clear out her office and a 90-day severence, and refused to say why.

That’s not the way the public expects a public body to do public business. Taxpayers deserve an explanation of why the person credited with building the system from essentially nothing was let go.

But as too often happens, taxpayers were left wondering what happened — and what is the future of their multi-million dollar investment.

So what did Miller do? Was there a misuse of funds? Were employees being abused? Were passengers being left by the side of the road? Don’t ask board members. They won’t say.

A settlement agreement offered Miller underscored what appeared to be the board’s top priority — to keep the whole thing quiet.

It included:

n A mutual non-disparagement clause which would bind both parties not to make disparaging remarks about the other.

n Both parties would agree to keep any agreement for separation confidential to the extent possible.

The decision to fire Miller without explanation was roundly criticized by 40-plus people who showed up to support her. Some called out “Shame on you!” after the vote.

Miller said she clashed with the board when it gave a former employee a raise without consulting her and she disagreed with some board members over the mission of Benzie Bus.

She thinks the system should first serve seniors and the indigent, primarily through a dial-a-ride service. Longtime Benzie Bus Board Member Ingemar Johansson said the system should meet both local needs and fit into a regional transit system. He said he doesn’t want a system that serves only “people in poverty and not just people who don’t have a car.”

That’s fine. That’s the kind of discussion the board should be having with its director and the public — in public. And if the board feels its director can’t or won’t follow its directives, it can fire her.

But say why. Defend your position. Give facts and figures. What a public board can’t do is hide behind its attorney and some “mutual non-disparagement clause.”

Board members expected Miller to answer to them. The public expects the board to answer to the public. Maybe the firings shouldn’t end with her.