TRAVERSE CITY — Some financial dealings between county commissioners and the county are governed by law, while ethical practices act as a guide for others.
It was immediately after Grand Traverse County commissioners took office in January that they came face to face with loaded ethical questions such as, “Who gets to decide what entails a conflict of interest?” and “What gives them the right to do so?”
Those questions — brought forth by some of the final actions of outgoing commissioners — led to the formation of the Ethics Ad Hoc Committee. It’s tasked with examining the county’s current code of ethics and bringing recommendations for changes to the full board.
The question of just what situations Michigan law applies to, though, was raised by the full county board last week.
Commissioner Sonny Wheelock Jr. drew attention to a notice to the board by Chairperson Rob Hentschel about potential purchases county employees might make at Roy’s General Store — which Hentschel’s family owns and where he is a manager.
Hentschel said he wrote the letter after being made aware by finance staff that a county credit card had been used to make a purchase at his store. He didn’t know the sale had occurred or how much it was for, Hentschel said.
“I don’t need the business at Roy’s,” Hentschel said after the meeting. “But I also don’t want to force the county to go out of the way if it’s available here. It could end up costing extra labor hours, extra miles if they have to go across town to get it.”
The total was $16.58, according to county Finance Director Dean Bott.
“I’m trying to figure out how this fits,” said Wheelock, who co-owns Wheelock & Sons Welding. The company has been doing business with the county since before he took office in 1999, as previously reported.
Since 2015, there have been five invoices for work done for the county by Wheelock & Sons Welding totaling $1,202.55, said Bott. All have gone through the approval process, he said.
“I’m not putting the onus on Rob in any sense of the word,” Wheelock added. “I’ve been through this dozens and dozens of times. It always comes back to there’s a conflict and every sale has to be approved.”
There are two laws that come into play, said Kit Tholen, deputy civil counsel.
One prohibits commissioners from entering into contracts with the county without disclosing certain information and getting approval with a two-thirds vote of the non-conflicted board members and it’s been recorded in the minutes. The vote must be taken at least seven days after the disclosure is made.
The other says commissioners aren’t allowed to benefit from a contract or business transaction between themselves and the county unless three-quarters of the board have voted to OK it and it's been recorded in the minutes.
Tholen said he’ll be looking into the laws further, but the difference between Wheelock and Hentschel’s situations seems like it might be a knowledge component. But there is no clear difference in the law, he added.
The board voted 4-3 to send the question to the Ethics Ad Hoc Committee — which works with Tholen — for further review.
Commissioners Hentschel, Gordie La Pointe and Ron Clous voted no.
A scrapped proposal for elected officials to complete and annual financial disclosure statement aimed to identify financial conflicts.
The Ethics Ad Hoc Committee — Commissioners Betsy Coffia, Brad Jewett and Clous — on May 29 voted to not recommend a financial disclosure as part of the in-progress code of ethics policy.
The draft shared by Tholen called for those completing it to divulge any: interest as a partner, member, employee or contractor in or for a co-partnership or other unincorporated association; a beneficiary or trustee in a trust; a director, officer, employee or contractor in or for a corporation; legal or beneficial ownership of 10 percent or more of the total outstanding stock of a corporation; and legal or beneficial ownership of any real property.
Those components instead were included under the policy’s definition of “financial interest.”
Coffia prefaced her vote by saying she would rather have an annual disclosure statement, but would vote “yes” because including the conditions elsewhere in the policy is the next best thing.
The policy should stand on its own, said Clous, who chairs the committee. Clous adamantly opposed any form of disclosure statement, a stance he stood by throughout the meeting.
Clous said, because of the nature of his business, there’s a better chance of his disclosure statement being wrong than correct. He co-owns Eastwood Custom Homes and two local senior care facilities — Northern Star Assisted Living and Aurora Senior Living.
There’s about 40 construction home contracts a year he signs his name on, Clous said. That’s money he’s responsible for and thus would have to be included in the disclosure, he said.
“For myself, I don’t need to go through that,” Clous said.