Wednesday’s administrative briefing for the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners was indeed brief, and its agenda didn’t contain the day’s biggest news: A state Court of Appeals ruling giving the county a legal victory, possibly marking the end of a years-long dispute with three townships – Ypsilanti, Salem and Augusta – over the cost of sheriff deputy patrols.
“The court completely vindicated the county’s position,” commissioner Jeff Irwin said after Wednesday’s meeting.
The three townships sued the county in 2006, disputing the amount that the county billed townships for sheriff deputy patrols, as well as the way those charges were determined. The case was initially heard in Monroe County Circuit Court by Judge Joseph Costello, who dismissed 12 of the townships claims but who also ruled that the county had committed a technical violation of the Open Meetings Act.
The townships then took their case to the Court of Appeals, which upheld Costello’s rulings on the 12 claims and reversed the decision on the Open Meetings Act violation. The appeals court also indicated that because the county later re-enacted decisions that took place during the meeting that technically violated the Open Meetings Act, “any issue pertaining to the existence of a violation of the act was rendered moot.”
Issued Wednesday morning, the unanimous ruling of the three appellate judges included some harsh assessments of the merit of the appeal. The court describes one of the townships’ arguments as “merely one more pellet in the shotgun approach to this litigation as the Townships fail to provide any discussion or law in support of this conclusion.” [Read the complete 18-page document in PDF format.]
In another instance, commenting on the townships’ claim that the county violated the Open Meetings Act, the court ruling states: ”It is incredible to this Court that the Townships could have expended sufficient time and effort in pursuing this one claim to justify their contention of entitlement to over $300,000 in attorney fees and costs, particularly given their inability to substantiate the primary claims underlying this cause of action.”
The Court of Appeals also ruled that the circuit court must calculate the amount that the townships owe the county for an 11-month period (from Jan. 1, 2006 through Dec. 6, 2006). During that time the townships, because of their pending litigation, received police services at a lower rate than the county had determined.
At Wednesday night’s briefing, board chair Rolland Sizemore Jr., who represents a district that includes a portion of Ypsilanti Township, said he didn’t want to comment until he’d had a chance to read the ruling. Commissioner Wes Prater, whose district covers part of Ypsilanti Township as well as Augusta Township, also had not read the ruling in detail. Ken Schwartz, the commissioner for District 2, which includes Salem Township, declined comment until the case was closed, noting that the townships still had other options, including appealing to the state Supreme Court.
When asked how the decision might affect current negotiations for contracts starting in 2010, Sizemore said that negotiations would move forward and that he had faith in the new sheriff, Jerry Clayton. [Former sheriff Dan Minzey, who was defeated by Clayton in the August 2008 Democratic primary, had supported the townships in their dispute.]
Because of the difficult economy, Sizemore said, “we have to work together.” He said that’s the good thing to come out of the otherwise dismal economic situation that all local governments face. “The little pockets of ‘This is my territory, not yours’ – that won’t work any longer.”
Looking Ahead: Feb. 18 Board Agenda
The main item for next Wednesday’s meeting is on the agenda for the Ways & Means Committee, which immediately precedes the regular board meeting. County administrator Bob Guenzel plans to make a presentation on county revenue projections for the next four years. At the board’s Feb. 4 meeting, Guenzel gave a grim outlook for the coming years, based in large part on lower property tax revenues. The goal for the Feb. 18 meeting, he told commissioners, is to reach agreement about what revenue projections should be used as county staff puts together its budget. He also wants commissioners to give feedback on some longer-term reforms he plan to propose. Their decisions won’t be set in stone, he said, but will help provide guidance in identifying how much to cut on the expense side.
David Behen, deputy county administrator, said they’d be adding an agenda item about approving a short-term arrangement to provide information technology services to Pittsfield Township through May 31. The township asked the county for help when the person managing its IT services died earlier this month. “It was truly an emergency,” said commissioner Kristin Judge, whose district covers Pittsfield Township.
Later, Judge told The Chronicle that the township is talking with county staff about having the county handle its IT, human resources and finance services. The biggest issue, she said, is figuring out how much to charge the township so that the county’s costs are covered, and how to ensure county staff has enough manpower to handle the additional work. If these issues can be worked out with Pittsfield, she said, the county might be able to market those services to other townships. “I think it’s really going to be a positive change for everyone,” she said.
Finally, Wes Prater asked that county staff draft a resolution for the Feb. 18 meeting to honor U.S. Rep. John Dingell, whose district includes parts of Washtenaw County, and who this week became the longest-serving member in Congress – ever. “We should make it really over the top,” Jeff Irwin suggested, “If not in volume, then in emphasis.”