Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 20, 2013

Per diems dispute

Profanities aimed at fellow board member


TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse County road commissioners voted to lift a one-year cap on money they receive for extra meetings and other events, but not before one commissioner repeatedly cursed at a fellow commissioner during a public meeting.

Road Commissioners Dave Taylor and Marc McKellar pointedly opposed fellow Commissioner John Nelson's suggestion to cap total commission per diems at $7,500 annually, not including conferences, minutes from a Jan. 3 organizational meeting show.

Taylor "used an expletive repeatedly" toward Nelson after McKellar said per diems "were never an issue before this one board member walked in the door and made it his issue," according to meeting minutes.

Taylor would not comment for this article. He apologized for his profane language at the end of that meeting.

A large spike in meeting payments to some road commissioners, particularly to McKellar and Taylor, and some questionable per diem payments — like charges for telephone calls with the board's attorneys, ribbon cuttings and social gatherings — drew scrutiny from commission auditors.

Auditors looked at payment requests from all five road commissioners to see if they in fact attended meetings as they'd claimed. Their study found several meetings in which they couldn't confirm a road commissioner's attendance, but neither could they say the commissioner in question wasn't there.

The audit found no evidence of wrongdoing or violations of the road board's broad per diem policy that was in effect in 2011.

Still, the board decided in late June to limit commissioners to three per diem payments per month for the rest of 2012.

The limitations, which expired on Jan. 1, mainly affected Taylor and McKellar, who together were on pace to collect almost $8,000 in extra pay.

The cap proposed by Nelson would have allowed each commissioner to draw per diems from at least three meetings per month and would demonstrate fiscal discipline, Nelson stated during the Jan. 3 meeting.

McKellar said the commission's per diem policy, which now lists 42 meetings in which members are eligible for per diem and mileage expenses, was stricter than the per diem policies followed by other entities, including the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners.

McKellar raised concerns about "Nelson's attempts to control per diem costs" and other actions that led to "negative newspaper articles as a campaign to discredit other commissioners." He called Nelson's actions "shameful" and said they caused his family "their worst summer ever," meeting minutes state.

Taylor accused Nelson of wrongly recording two meetings on compensation forms. Taylor, "using an expletive," referred to Nelson as a "liar" and said he could not trust him, the minutes state.

Nelson said he did not charge per diems for those meetings, or any others. The commission's policy requires board members to record meetings they attend on a meeting compensation, even if they don't collect per diems payments.

Nelson later said he does not collect per diem expenses because as a commissioner he already receives compensation.

Commissioners work part-time for an annual base salary of $5,500, plus taxpayer-funded health insurance and a pension.

"To me that includes all the various meetings a road commissioner would attend," Nelson said. "To get paid extra for that, in my opinion, is not right for me."

The commission's current policy allows for a maximum of three per diems in a 24-hour period. Commissioners can collect $35 for the first two meeting and $20 for the third. Board members can also receive up to $3,500 in conference and travel expenses.

The discussion on the proposed per diem cap ended without a vote.

"Let me put it this way," Nelson said. "There was no support for my proposal."

McKellar would not comment on the discussion. He referred questions to Commission Chairman Carl Brown.

"My personal opinion is not relevant on this," McKellar said.

Brown said the exchange at the meeting did not suggest any problems between commissioners. He also opposed the proposed cap, meeting minutes show.

"Everybody has varied opinions," Brown said. "They were just stating their opinions ... I'm quite comfortable this isn't going to be an issue."

Monthly road commission meetings are video-taped and posted online, but the commission did tape the Jan. 3 organizational meeting.