Political infighting and drama seems to dominate the Grand Traverse County Road Commission. That's likely been the case since motorized vehicles replaced horse-drawn carriages here.
Sniping and back-biting intensified in the years since the county board of commissioners boosted road board membership from three to five. In recent months a new, three-member majority of road commissioners decided they wouldn't renew commission Manager Mary Gillis' contract when it expires in the fall. But their ham-handed efforts very likely ensured Gillis a generous, taxpayer-funded parting gift.
The road commission just might have its hands full over another matter, a situation that's caught its auditors' eyes.
Some road commissioners are piling up thousands of dollars in "per diem" costs, or payments for work the part-time commissioners said they do outside their standard meeting schedule.
Road commission Chairman Marc McKellar led the way among commissioners by billing the county for about $5,300 in per diems during a 17-month period from January 2011 through May 2012. McKellar's regular salary stands at $6,500, plus he receives county-paid health insurance and a pension.
McKellar, who teamed with fellow commissioners Dave Taylor and Carl Brown in the move against Gillis, said he's just being paid for doing road commission business. But auditors question some of those payments, including money he received for attending after-hours schmooze fests.
McKellar's memory fogged when a Record-Eagle reporter asked him about his penchant for per diem-ism. He initially said he didn't recall certain gatherings, and he denied seeking payment to attend the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce's annual dinner meeting.
He reversed course when the paper shared with him documents obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act.
"If they are on that list, they pertain to the business of the road commission, economic development, stuff that is relevant to the road commission," McKellar said.
Taylor claimed about $4,400 in per diems over the same time frame and Brown totaled about $1,500. Fellow commissioners Jim Maitland (about $1,200) and John Nelson (about $600) followed, though Nelson said he stopped claiming extra payments last year. He believes such payments are "out of line."
McKellar said all commissioners follow terms and conditions set by the county board, "right down to the letter of the law."
Maybe not, said Larry Inman, county board chairman. He said the county board won't pay its members for anything other than established meetings related to county business or training.
Someone needs to write clear per diem rules, and road commissioners perhaps ought to spend more of their time worrying about road conditions and less about politics and their personal financial conditions.