TRAVERSE CITY — “Shall” creates a clear line in the sand. “Should” is far less defined.

That distinction has been the subject of multiple conflict of interest votes in recent years by Grand Traverse County commissioners — and part of the discussion Wednesday of the commission’s newly formed Ethics Ad Hoc Committee.

Deliberating the validity of a Dec. 19 vote by former Commissioner Tom Mair to appoint his wife, Susan Odgers, to the Traverse Area District Library Board was how county commissioners started their 2019-20.

It took two meetings of the new board, hours of discussion, a rescission of Odgers’ appointment, written legal opinion, declaring the Dec. 19 vote invalid, a 6-1 vote to appoint her and a lawsuit against the county — later dropped — before the topic began to settle.

The controversy brought forward the topics of ethics and conflicts of interest and led to the creation of the ad hoc committee.

Commissioners Betsy Coffia, Brad Jewett and Ron Clous make up the ad hoc and will examine the county’s current code of ethics, eventually bringing recommendations for changes — if any — to the full board. Clous was elected the committee chairperson.

A firm timeline for the ad hoc to complete its work hasn’t been established, in part because the trio hasn’t fully identified what they want to change in the code — although one goal is to look into finding a way to make it applicable to commissioners.

“What I’m focused on is how we’re going to be able to … hold ourselves accountable, but not be hamstrung in doing our jobs,” Clous said.

Policies like the code of ethics don’t apply to commissioners just by being in existence, county Deputy Civil Counsel Kit Tholen said. He has previously stated that the ethics code reads as though it attempts to apply to commissioners, but doesn’t, according to law.

Among the first recommendations made by Coffia, Clous and Jewett is to add language that commissioners shall — not should, as the current rules state — disclose when an immediate family member is applying for an appointment made by the board and shall — not should — abstain from voting on that appointment.

The wording could end up being tweaked and the three have requested Tholen to bring recommendations on how “immediate family member” should be defined, but they unanimously agreed on the concept. Tholen confirmed that such a rule is legal.

Commissioners also are looking at a way to apply similar constraints to voting on matters that could that would involve direct personal or financial interests for family, business associates or others.

The rules would have kept not only Mair from voting, but likely former Commissioner Dan Lathrop who, in 2013, cast a deciding vote expanding the authority of then-County Drain Commissioner Kevin McElyea. Lathrop and McElyea lived in and owned a home together at the time of Lathrop's vote.

“We still live in a small enough community that most of us who have been here for a period of time know a lot of people,” Jewett said. “I think most of our constituents would appreciate spelling it out some, but not limiting ourselves to where we can never vote. I think if we have something in place to protect us and the people that we know (that’s good).”

The Ethics Ad Hoc Committee’s next meeting tentatively is scheduled for April 10 at 8 a.m. They will meet in room 300 on the third floor of the Governmental Center.

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