SUTTONS BAY — Leelanau County Road Commissioner Tom Eckerle faces calls for his resignation after he used a racial slur while talking to other board members during the preamble to a public meeting.
Several community members pledged to start a petition to recall Eckerle, which would need 3,300 signatures to get it on a ballot, if he refuses to resign from his position.
When contacted, Eckerle, who lives in Suttons Bay, said he has no intention of forfeiting his seat. He acknowledged using the racial slur at the public meeting, and repeated it while talking to a Record-Eagle reporter.
“Black Lives Matter is more offensive than the n--- — word for what they are doing to this country,” Eckerle said.
He denies being racist and said the BLM movement sends chills up and down his back.
Eckerle is an elected official and cannot be removed from office by Leelanau County commissioners or by road commission board members. He could, however, be removed by the governor.
Eckerle’s racist statement, broadcast minutes before the meeting, came one day before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an order declaring racism a public health crisis. The order directs all state employees to undergo implicit bias training.
Whitmer attended a memorial service Thursday for the late Gov. William Milliken and when asked about the issue said she has been asked to intervene in other instances when Michigan residents want someone removed from office.
“Ultimately these offices are decided by the local community at the polls,” Whitmer said. “The process is incredibly long and cumbersome and is not one that is used frequently because of that.”
A recall effort is a better option, she said.
The community uproar is in response to Eckerle’s use of the racial slur when he was asked why he wasn’t wearing a mask at the meeting. He responded by saying, “This whole thing is because of those n-----s down in Detroit,” according to Linda Kuhn, administrative assistant for the road commission.
When told his language was inappropriate, “He came back with ‘I can say anything I want,’” Kuhn said.
County Administrator Chet Janik said his phone rang constantly Thursday with calls from people asking that Eckerle be fired. He has been in touch with the county’s legal department. The county’s lawyer said the government body does not have the authority to remove an elected road commissioner.
“I am personally and professionally disappointed that any individual would make those comments, especially an elected official,” Janik said.
State Rep. Jack O’Malley is calling for Eckerle’s resignation and several local elected officials have said they’ll support a recall.
The meeting took place Tuesday at the road commission offices in Suttons Bay. The room is too small for social distancing, so the public is asked to participate via phone, Kuhn said. There were two people listening in, she said.
Meetings are recorded, but Kuhn had not started the tape as Eckerle used the word before the meeting started, she said. Kuhn said she has received hundreds of emails and phone calls about it.
“In no way, shape or form do we condone this type of behavior,” said road commission Chair Bob Joyce, though no action was taken or comments made by commissioners, including him, during the meeting.
Joyce said he is “furious” and has been in touch with the commission’s attorney.
“We’re trying to find out what can be done,” Joyce said.
Cedar resident Ellen Fred said she is one of several people who will start the recall process if Eckerle refuses to step down.
“I was shocked and saddened that he would feel so bold to say something so egregiously racist in a public setting,” said Fred. “It needs to be made very clear that racism will not be tolerated in our community. I think it’s very clear that he does not represent citizens of this county.”
Tyasha Harrison of Lake Ann is a member of the Northern Michigan Anti Racism Task Force that formed in June in response to protests in Traverse City and around the country that took place in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis.
“I am disgusted. I am appalled,” Harrison said. “This type of language and rhetoric is something that has not died off. It shows that racism is here, it’s very much present and it’s coming to the forefront.”
Harrison said recent events, as well as the current political climate, have prompted some people to be more vocal about how they feel about movements such as Black Lives Matter, which advocates for non-violent protests against police brutality.
There are people in the community who have stepped up and want to see a change, but there are also those pockets of people who want things to be the way they were in the 1950s, she said.
John Fletcher of Lake Leelanau said ignorance and arrogance are the words he and his wife frequently use to describe the adversity they face from people who seem well-educated and well-informed. Comments like Eckerle’s are like a sharp-edged sword, he said.
“This is scary,” Fletcher said. “He doesn’t represent us and obviously he doesn’t care much about his job or his cohorts.”
Eckerle has been on the commission since 2018, when he was elected to a six-year term. There has been turmoil and turnover in the road commission since his election and public floggings of some employees.
Former managing director Dan Wagner left shortly after Eckerle was elected. His replacement, Justin Kelenske, left in April after less than a year on the job and former engineer Jim Johnson, who was a frequent target of Eckerle’s vitriol, resigned last year.
Joe Nedow, finance manager and board secretary, also resigned after 18 years to take a job with the Benzie County Road Commission. His last day was this week.