TRAVERSE CITY — Smoldering disagreements over mayoral appointments in Traverse City could flare up as commissioners debate a policy laying out how candidates should be interviewed.
The mayor has the authority to pick candidates for the city planning commission, Downtown Development Authority board and human rights commission and spots on the Traverse Area District Library board. Mayors also fill vacancies for partial terms on Traverse City Light & Power’s board.
The city commission must confirm those picks — but can’t put forth their own — and some city leaders want an ad hoc committee to interview each candidate for those boards. They’ll debate at a study session Monday whether to draft a policy requiring as much, although Mayor Jim Carruthers and at least one other commissioner oppose the idea.
Carruthers said state law gives him authority over the planning commission and DDA picks. An agreement with the library gives him the say over TADL’s city-appointed board members and city charter lets him choose people to fill vacant partial terms.
“We can set a policy but a policy isn’t law,” he said. “Public acts and the statutes that we follow, that’s the law. We don’t have to follow policy.”
City leaders who don’t like the mayoral appointment process should change those authorities, Commissioner Brian McGillivary said. One concerning the human rights commission is a board policy they could drop right away, while others are laws they’d have to lobby to rewrite.
Commissioner Christie Minervini said those same laws give commissioners a vote. She supports a policy requiring ad hocs interview candidates for mayoral appointments, and said the issue isn’t about the law or taking away the mayor’s rights.
“My problem with the current system is that it’s inconsistent, it lacks transparency and that it’s unpredictable,” Minervini said. “I think an ad hoc’s better because three heads are better than one, it’s a public process, it’s fair, the interviews are the same length and candidates are asked the same question and candidates are fairly compared.”
Carruthers said he has a consistent process of setting a meeting with applicants. Some would rather talk by phone, and he gives them as much time to talk as they want. He meets with people at different places, or not at all, and the interviews vary in length.
McGillivary said Carruthers interviewed him for his appointment to the planning commission, and he’s been a part of ad hocs to pick people for city boards. Those subcommittee interviews tend to be short, he agreed, and oftentimes it’s a tough choice from among a handful of well-qualified applicants.
McGillivary won’t support a policy aimed at mayoral appointments — such a policy could be ignored anyway, he said. If commissioners want consistency, they should back an ordinance requiring every candidate be interviewed by an ad hoc committee for every city appointment, he said — that might not be legal, he added, and he doubted anyone would back it.
“We have way more important things in the city than fighting over this stuff,” he said. “I’m just sick of it, honestly, I am. It’s a waste of time.”
Plus, ad hoc interviews haven’t always been consistent when it comes to interviewing every candidate, either, McGillivary said. Sometimes they’ve met only once, while other times they’ve reconvened to meet one applicant who couldn’t make the first one, but not others. The consistency argument rang hollow for McGillivary, he said. He called the issue a “power grab” and a “smoke screen” for commissioners who want to see people who share their ideologies appointed to city boards.
Commissioners who objected to the mayoral appointment process have repeatedly said their “no” votes aren’t about the candidates before them. Minervini reiterated that Friday, as did Commissioner Tim Werner.
He said the issue could’ve been avoided if Carruthers provided some arguments for his past picks, later adding the mayor’s statements about his reasoning for choosing candidates aren’t enough. Commissioners have an obligation to be thoughtful about their confirmation votes, he said.
“I’m not concerned about political favors or getting people in places that’ll make me look good in the future, et cetera,” he said.
Werner previously argued requiring a three-person interview could remove the appearance of impropriety, noting how Carruthers passed over an application from his last challenger on the ballot.
McGillivary called the remarks a “cheap shot” and Carruthers denied he passed over Shea O’Brien for a recent TADL appointment because O’Brien ran against him for mayor. He reappointed someone already on the board who served for less than a year, and he called the accusation another excuse by people who don’t like his appointments.
Werner said he’s pushing for transparency and consistency in the appointment process. He added he expected the incumbent to be reappointed to the TADL board but said O’Brien was the only other applicant, and people can’t be expected to be completely neutral and unbiased.
Carruthers said he routinely lets ad hocs pick human rights commission appointments to avoid the appearance of impropriety by “appointing friends in high places,” pointing to his longtime activism and the connections he made through it.
Minervini’s support for the policy isn’t a “power play,” she said. Her objections to the current setup go back before she was appointed to the city commission.
“It’s really designed to make things more transparent and fair for applicants and also too, that this is not something every time an appointment’s to be made, that it comes to a head,” she said. “If there’s a policy in place, we can all follow it.”