Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 15, 2013

Official votes to grant new county powers to housemate

BY MICHAEL WALTON mwalton@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — A Grand Traverse County commissioner ignored a campaign promise and raised questions about a possible conflict of interest when he voted to expand the county's drain commissioner's powers.

Commissioner Dan Lathrop lives with and co-owns a house with county drain commissioner Kevin McElyea. On Dec. 11, Lathrop voted for McElyea's plan to restore the drain commissioner's authority to handle storm water control duties in some villages and townships.

Lathrop told the Record-Eagle during his 2012 campaign for a county board seat that he would not vote on matters related to McElyea's duties.

Lathrop on Friday denied his vote created a conflict of interest because the storm water control measure did not include financial gains for himself or McEleya.

But county attorney Bob Cooney suggested there's more to a potential conflict than just money.

"Disqualification of a public official due to a conflict of interest is fact-sensitive and depends on whether under the circumstances a particular interest had the likely capacity to tempt the official to depart from his or her sworn public duty," Cooney said.

Cooney would not definitively say whether Lathrop's vote for McElyea met that definition.

"It’s possible," Cooney said. "It raises that possibility."

The county commission in 2012 stripped soil erosion and storm water control duties from McElyea, and also slashed his salary. The proposal before commissioners last week did not restore McElyea's salary, but it did give him the ability to administer and enforce storm water ordinances along with the county's prosecuting attorneys in Fife Lake Township, Fife Lake Village and the Village of Kingsley.

Board members passed the agreement in a 4 to 3 vote.

McElyea did not return calls for comment.

Lathrop said he changed his mind about recusing himself from McElyea-related votes after he took office. He said the issue of storm water control is "too important" for him to sit out such votes.

"There’s plenty of room for a man of integrity to make this type of decision," Lathrop said. "These things are way too important to ignore them. I would vote the same way if anybody came to our board and wanted to do good in this area for the county."

Commission Chair Herb Lemcool said he remembered "something about" Lathrop's pledge to recuse himself from McEleya-related matters.

"But I don’t remember exactly what it was," he said. "Vaguely, it’s in my brain sitting there."

Lemcool said he did not question Lathrop's vote at the Dec. 11 meeting because he wasn't chairing that session.

That duty fell to Commissioner Larry Inman.

Inman said he believed Lathrop was able to vote on the agreement because it did not financially affect the county, Lathrop, or McEleya. He also said he previously told Lathrop to get an opinion from Cooney on whether his relationship as McElyea's housemate constituted a conflict of interest.

"I’m hoping he did that because I didn't go back and ask him," Inman said. "I didn't expect it to come up.”

Cooney said Lathrop never asked him to prepare an opinion on the matter.