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Smits

TRAVERSE CITY — Of nearly 15,000 votes cast, only 106 separated primary winner Andy Smits from his nearest Republican rival for Grand Traverse County drain commissioner.

With no Democratic candidate, Smits will likely run unopposed in November.

“I called the county clerk and asked for the details on the certification process,” Smits said Wednesday. “The tally needs to be certified, they check signatures but she said I could rely on the numbers.”

Smits said he plans to bring that kind of detailed oversight to the office of drain commissioner — an elected post that has been subject to conflict for decades.

Incumbent Steve Largent did not seek re-election and endorsed Smits, a geological engineer.

“I’m very glad to know I was the top vote-getter,” Smits said. “I hope to work closely with Steve and (county finance director) Dean Bott to make sure there is a smooth transition.”

“Steve did not enjoy that same experience when he took office,” Smits added.

Landscape architect Kevin McElyea received the second highest number of votes — 4,235 — and political staffer Joseph Underwood received 3,905, unofficial election results show.

McElyea, who held the job for more than a decade, from 2005 to 2016, previously said he was running to finish two “shovel ready” projects which lapsed after he was bested for the job by Largent in 2016.

During his tenure, McElyea was the subject of a harassment complaint by a colleague in 2012, documents show. An outside law firm determined McElyea hadn’t violated the county’s harassment policy, but did violate county policies prohibiting violence in the workplace and retaliation, documents show. McElyea filed for unemployment benefits after his responsibilities were diminished in March 2012 and his pay cut by county commissioners from $61,165 to $7,000, county records show. An inquiry by the Unemployment insurance Agency in 2013 resulted in a requirement McElyea pay back more than $5,000 to the state, as elected officials are not eligible for unemployment benefits.

McElyea did not return a call seeking comment.

Since McElyea’s time the position has not returned to full-time status and now pays $15,000 for approximately 10 hours of work per week. Largent said, with 13 drain districts to manage, the post requires a donation of time by the official, which Smits said was his understanding also.

Smits said transparency in record-keeping, assets and decision-making would be a priority under his leadership.

“There’s some work to do with respect to administration of the office and the assets so people of the county understand the condition their assets are in,” Smits said.

All 13 drain districts are important, and property owners in those districts should be treated equally, he said. The Cass Road Drain has been most active in recent years and Smits predicted that would continue to be the case.

“That was evident in the county commission meeting this morning so I’ll be looking at that very closely,” Smits said.

On Wednesday county commissioners unanimously approved a drain commission deficit elimination plan, to address $54,000 in expenditures on the Old Mission Drain and the Cass Road Drain, which have not yet been paid for with special assessment levies, Bott said.

The Old Mission Drain assessment will be levied in December, Bott said.

No levy on the Cass Road Drain District has yet been decided, though Bott expected that to change soon, he said. If not, the deficit would carry over into 2021.

“The bottom line is, under state law the local unit of government is responsible for submitting a deficit elimination plan to the state,” Bott said.

The Cass Road Drain special assessment district was created following extensive flooding of commercial properties on Cass Road, a contract was bandied about with downstate firm, Spicer Engineering, during McElyea’s tenure, work was started but a contract between the county and the firm was never signed, documents show.

The total amount spent has been difficult for Largent and county staff to determine, after there was a breakdown in communication between Spicer staff and Largent, board minutes show.

Spicer for a time refused to provide the results of their engineering work until their invoices were paid, and county officials countered that work was started without authorizations.

The bulk of $675,000 in short-term debt for improvements on the Cass Road Drain was spent on design work by Spicer, Bott said.

Some commissioners previously objected to the amount Spicer was charging. Largent recently negotiated with Spicer staff and succeeded in reducing the amount of those invoices by $143,00, Bott said.

Largent now has received the engineering work from Spicer to pass onto Smits when he takes possession of the office Jan. 1, Bott said.

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