TRAVERSE CITY — An attempt by two Grand Traverse County commissioners to question Sheriff Tom Bensley about jail oversight was locked down when another commissioner called a point of order and the board chair ended discussion.
An agenda item listed as “Sheriff Jail Oversight Report” descended into rancor after Commissioners Betsy Coffia and Bryce Hundley spent seven minutes Wednesday detailing a litany of what they said were multiple areas of concern regarding management of Grand Traverse County’s jail, including staff turnover, lawsuits and mental health care.
“In May of last year, we learned from local media reports, along with the community, that our former jail administrator, Mr. Todd Ritter, had resigned after an internal investigation alleged that he repeatedly perpetrated sexual assaults on female inmates and parolees, among other abuses of power, and that this occurred over time,” Coffia said.
Commissioner Bryce Hundley said he and Coffia had agreed that if criminal charges were brought against Ritter, that would be the time for commissioners to inquire about jail oversight.
Ritter was arraigned Aug. 14 in 86th District Court on multiple felony charges related to accusations of criminal misconduct.
And once his name was raised in the meeting, so were commissioners’ voices.
“I mean,” Hundley said, “how could Ritter have gotten away with it for five years? Why didn’t corrections staff feel they could speak out until early 2019?”
Coffia said the issue had been weighing on her for some time and that she and Hundley were not asking to litigate the case, but rather had eight categories of questions for the sheriff about changes in jail policy since Ritter resigned.
Hundley began listing the questions, some of which focused not on new jail policies, but rather probed Ritter’s supervision during his employment with the sheriff’s department, when Commissioner Gordie La Pointe called a point of order.
“This was a well-rehearsed discussion that in my mind the board was totally blindsided on,” La Pointe said.
A point of order is a mechanism for any board member in a public meeting to ask whether correct procedure is being followed.
La Pointe said an inquiry into jail oversight may be appropriate, but not in the way Coffia and Hundley were approaching it. Their line of questioning was a, “switch and bait,” he said, planned two months before an election and which deviated from the agenda item for political reasons.
Bensley, a Republican, won the Republican primary in August and faces Greg Hall, a Democrat, in the general election Nov. 3. Hall spoke earlier during the public comment portion of the meeting, to say he sounded the alarm for two years over jail mismanagement and he also questioned the objectivity of a recently commissioned evaluation of healthcare in the jail.
NCCHC Resources, the corrections consulting firm hired by the county to evaluate healthcare in the jail, submitted its report to Bensley Aug. 17. Bensley sent a press release about the report Aug. 27 and released the 18-page report to the media later that day, though the report was not included in commissioners’ meeting packet.
Included instead was a single email from Coffia to County Administrator Nate Alger and county staffer Lisa Emery, copying Hundley, asking for “Sheriff Jail Oversight Report” to be put on the agenda for Sept. 2.
Some confusion existed as to the word “report” with some expecting to discuss the NCCHC Resources report while Coffia said it was intended to denote a response from the sheriff to questions she said were emailed to him a day before the meeting.
After La Pointe called for a point of order, Coffia defended the prepared questions as being within the scope of the agenda item and asked to be allowed to continue, when Commission Chair Rob Hentschel stepped in.
“I’m not going to allow a public hearing,” he said. “There’s no motion on the floor. If you don’t have a recommendation for this board to vote on, we’re going to move on in the agenda.”
Another several minutes of discussion ensued.
La Pointe asked why the questions Coffia and Hundley had obviously prepared ahead of time weren’t shared with the rest of the commission. Coffia didn’t answer directly, but said the inquiry was similar in protocol to previous inquiries by Commission Vice Chair Ron Clous for Drain Commissioner Steve Largent.
Board minutes show Clous made a motion to ask Largent to appear before the commission, while the agenda item on the jail’s budget Wednesday was a request submitted by Coffia, per the email.
Bensley did attend the remote meeting voluntarily, though in 10 minutes of back and forth, was never asked a direct question and did not speak, beyond confirming his microphone was unmuted.
Coffia and La Pointe both spoke during the second public comment again reiterating their opinions and Coffia attempted to read aloud some of the questions she wanted to ask Bensley but was eventually cut off by County Clerk Bonnie Scheele, when her three minutes expired.
After the meeting Coffia said she had first requested jail oversight be on a March meeting agenda, that meeting was canceled because of COVID-19, after which she and Hundley made the decision to revisit the issue if and when charges were filed.
“To be frank, I don’t think either of us thought charges would take this long,” she said. “I would have preferred it be discussed last fall, long before the election was an issue.”
Hentschel said the timing of the agenda request was problematic.
“This was an organized political action this morning,” Hensley told a Record-Eagle reporter after the meeting adjourned. “The stuff with Todd Ritter is over a year old. Why did they show up at this meeting to talk about it? It was a poor use of board time. Gotcha questions are just not appropriate in the board room.”
Coffia said the healthcare issues and the oversight issues are related but different and each needs to be discussed publicly with the sheriff.
“To any note on the timing I would say this,” Coffia said, after the meeting. “Any one of the other commissioners could have put it on the agenda. No one did. If not now, I would simply ask, when are they planning to talk about it?”