TRAVERSE CITY — Determining if an elected official has a conflict of interest can be tricky. Putting rules in place to prevent such conflicts even more so.
Questions arise such as, “Who gets to decide what entails a conflict of interest?” and “What gives them the right to do so?”
Grand Traverse County commissioners were elected in November, took their seats in January and immediately came face to face with some of those loaded ethical questions.
Commissioners started their term with hours spent 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.
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. Commissioners met Wednesday to delve further into those concepts — and to learn to what rules they themselves are held.
“I want to understand (the county’s code of ethics) policy, make sure it’s doing the work it needs to do to serve public interest,” said Commissioner Betsy Coffia, who first asked for such a meeting in January.
The “Code of Ethics for Grand Traverse County Employees and Officials” reads as though it attempts to apply to commissioners, but doesn’t, according to law, said County Deputy Civil Counsel Kit Tholen.
It also isn’t clear on what a conflict of interest is, something that he described as being a “herculean” and likely impossible task, and procedure for responding to those situations is entirely absent, he said.
The policy says violations can lead to disciplinary action up to, and including, discharge — but elected officials can’t be fired.
Commissioner Rob Hentschel said he agrees more specific examples are needed regarding what doesn’t look good, but it’s a “fine line.”
Ethics and conflict of interest policies from Antrim and Emmet counties and a model policy from the Michigan Attorney General’s Office were shared at the meeting as examples of policies with “teeth.”
The Antrim County policy lists detailed conflict of interest scenarios that prohibit commissioners from voting on issues involving family members, business associates or household members.
Such a rule would have kept not only Mair from voting, but also 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.
Antrim County’s policy also provides a way for the chairperson to prevent a commissioner from voting on an issue if there’s a conflict of interest.
“That’s too much power,” said Hentschel, the Grand Traverse chairperson. “I don’t want that power.”
Something Antrim, Emmet and Leelanau counties’ policies include that is absent in Grand Traverse County are statements of acknowledgment for commissioners to sign saying they are aware they’re aware of and bound by the documents.
Hentschel on Thursday compared such acknowledgements to an election-year pledge to never raise taxes.
“Even if there’s a policy that is supposed to be signed by commissioners, if a commissioner doesn’t sign it, they’re still a commissioner,” he said. “We can agree to act a certain way, but when it comes down to it, it’s up to the commissioner.”
Hentschel posed the same question at Wednesday's meeting. Coffia countered by saying voters could raise questions about such an act. It reflects poorly on the entire board if nothing changes and no mechanisms to help prevent those conflicts are put in place, she said.
Coffia was supported in the idea of looking into revised language with more clarity by Commissioners Sonny Wheelock Jr., Bryce Hundley and Gordie La Pointe.
“You shouldn’t have a law without a means of enforcing it,” said La Pointe, while adding that he wasn’t comfortable with any of the examples presented. “I think it’s an interesting discussion and, if somebody has a moderate way of doing that that doesn’t have traps built in, I’m interested.”
Coffia said she seriously is considering requesting the creation of a working group to further look into possible avenues for a better ethics policy be added to the next county board meeting’s agenda.