County Faces Tension Over Veterans Group

Veterans affairs appointments draw criticism. Also: Employees get 1.5% one-time payment; commissioners raise their own salaries

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Dec. 5, 2012): More than 20 veterans attended the county board’s final meeting of 2012, hoping to sway commissioners on three appointments to the county’s dept. of veterans affairs committee.

Michael Smith, Ira Brownridge, Washtenaw County veterans affairs, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Michael Smith, director of the Washtenaw County dept. of veterans affairs, and Ira Brownridge, a veteran of the conflict in Iraq who was appointed to the county’s veterans affairs committee – the first veteran from that conflict to serve on the committee. (Photos by the writer.)

The board ultimately voted to appoint Gregg Weaver, Robert Fletcher and Ira Brownridge. Weaver and Fletcher are reappointments. Brownridge – who was appointed to a vacancy following the death of World War II veteran Eddie Steele – is the first veteran from the conflict in Iraq to be appointed to the committee. The majority of commissioners supported the continuity of reappointments, and the chance to appoint someone to represent the next generation of veterans.

The vote on these appointments was 9-2, with dissent from Dan Smith (R-District 2) and Wes Prater (D-District 4). Prater and Smith wanted the board to respect the recommendations from the veterans posts in the county, which had supported the appointments of three different men: John Kinzinger, David “Doc” Martinez, and Elmer White – all veterans of the Vietnam war, and active in the Washtenaw County chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America. Kinzinger, White and other veterans spoke during public commentary, urging the board to appoint the most qualified applicants and those who have long been involved in helping veterans in this community. They also addressed what some referred to as a dysfunctional department, and felt that it needed more oversight.

In other action at the meeting, the board gave a one-time salary adjustment to 940 of the county’s 1,321 employees – people who had taken unpaid “banked leave” days in 2012. The payment will equal 1.5% of their salaries, or an average of about $800. Several commissioners praised employees for making sacrifices in the past to help balance the county’s budget. The vote on the pay adjustment was 10-1, with dissent from Dan Smith (R-District 2).

The commissioners also gave themselves a pay increase, bumping up their base pay from $15,500 to $15,750 annually and replacing per diem payments with stipends, effective Jan. 1, 2013. In addition, four officers of the board will be getting compensation beyond their base pay. Dan Smith was the only commissioner to vote against these increases.

Commissioners gave final approval to the 2013 general fund budget of $102.84 million, with a net increase of one full-time position. [.pdf of 2013 Washtenaw County budget] The largest expenditures relate to personnel, which accounts for 66% of general fund expenses. The 2013 budget shows a $4.7 million increase in that category, compared to the original 2013 budget that commissioners approved in late 2011.

The Dec. 5 meeting also included farewells to four outgoing commissioners – Barbara Bergman, Leah Gunn, Wes Prater and Rob Turner – as well as to Janis Bobrin, the county’s water resources commissioner, who did not seek re-election. Commissioners and staff also had a moment of silence to honor Patrick Barrie, executive director of the Washtenaw Community Health Organization, died suddenly this month. Bergman, a long-time WCHO board member, called his death is a great loss for people who use WCHO services. “They have lost a champion,” she said, “and I have lost the dearest of friends.”

Employee Compensation

The Washtenaw County administration proposed giving employees who have taken unpaid “banked leave” days in 2012 a one-time payment that’s equivalent to 1.5% of their salaries. The average payment would be about $800 and would affect 940 of the county’s 1,321 employees. The adjustment – a total increase of $361,000 – was included as part of the 2013 budget, which was also on the Dec. 5 agenda for final approval.

According to a staff memo, the majority of union workers and all non-union employees took 10 banked leave days in 2012, or the equivalent of a 3.85% salary decrease. Banked leave days are unpaid, but don’t affect retirement calculations. Most of the unions representing county employees had agreed to cuts during previous contract negotiations, as the county worked to eliminate a budget deficit caused in large part by declining property tax revenues.

However, decreases in property tax revenues were not as dire as originally projected – a decline of 0.77%, compared to a projected 5% decrease.

Employee Compensation: Public Commentary

Nancy Heine – president of AFSCME Local 3052, which represents employees who work as supervisors for the county – thanked the board for making the one-time adjustment. She felt the giveback would help reduce some of the financial pain and emotional stress that her union members had felt. They supported the action. However, she also wanted to acknowledge that unions are under attack in Lansing and that union members working for the county will continue to make significant financial concessions in 2013. She hoped that the board would consider some kind of financial relief at an appropriate time next year.

Caryette Fenner – president of AFSCME Local 2733, the county government’s largest union – told outgoing commissioners that she hated to see them go, but she looked forward to welcoming the new board. She thanked commissioners for the 1.5% adjustment, saying that even though it’s seen as a token, she wanted to give the board a “big thank you.”

Employee Compensation: Board Discussion

Several commissioners praised county employees for the financial sacrifices they’d made over the past few years. Board chair Conan Smith thanked the administration for making the proposal, and for being honest about cost savings that could be shared with employees. The county employees “were there for us” during the budget process, he said, adding that he hoped the adjustment would make Christmas a little brighter for the staff.

Nancy Heine, Caryette Fenner, AFSCME Local 2733, AFSCME Local 3052, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Nancy Heine, president of AFSCME Local 3052; and Caryette Fenner, president of AFSCME Local 2733.

Ronnie Peterson asked whether there would be any wage adjustments in 2013. County administrator Verna McDaniel said that only two unions would receive adjustments next year: the Police Officers Association of Michigan (POAM), with about 250 members; and the Command Officers Association of Michigan (COAM), with about 30 members. POAM and COAM members will receive a 1% salary increase effective Jan. 1, 2013.

Peterson noted that in general, employees are paying more in contributions to health care and retirement, and have made huge sacrifices for the county. “This is no present. This is no gift,” he said, adding that the county is “just giving them back what they’ve already rightfully earned.”

Leah Gunn said she’s been with the county for 16 years and has always been impressed with the work ethic, creativity, innovative thinking and tremendous output of county employees. Citing a comment made earlier in the meeting by Janis Bobrin, Gunn said Washtenaw County is a model county, with a national reputation for “knowing how to do it right.”

Acknowledging that it was a token amount, Barbara Bergman noted that “money’s money, so it’s a good token.” It shows appreciation for the staff and the work they do, she said.

Rob Turner observed that the union negotiations for the 2012-2013 budget cycle had been difficult. For businesses, if there is a better-than-expected outcome, the company usually keeps the profit, he said. The fact that the administration put forward this proposal shows integrity, Turner said, and he hoped it would build an even better relationship with the unions. He noted that next year there would be negotiations for the next two-year budget cycle of 2014-2015, and those would also be difficult – he didn’t envy commissioners or staff. [Dec. 5 was the last board meeting for Turner, who lost his re-election bid on Nov. 6.]

Directing his comments to Heine and Fenner, Yousef Rabhi said he supported the unions in their efforts to fight the right-to-work legislation proposed in the state legislature. He described the legislation as bad news for the state, and said he’d work to fight it.

Outcome: The board voted 10-1 to award the 1.5% pay adjustment, with dissent from Dan Smith (R-District 2), who referred to it as a bonus.

Commissioner Compensation

On the agenda was a resolution to approve increasing the base salaries of Washtenaw County commissioners from $15,500 to $15,750 annually and replacing per diem payments with stipends, effective Jan. 1, 2013. Commissioners had previously debated the issue at their Nov. 7 meeting, giving the increase initial approval at that time.

Most commissioners currently are paid a salary of $15,500. The new amount of $15,750 is calculated by indexing it to one-half the median “step” of the lowest grade salary among county employees. The resolution authorizing the increase also directs future boards to adjust commissioner salaries based on this same calculation.

Stephen Kunselman, Andy LaBarre, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Ann Arbor city councilmember Stephen Kunselman and Andy LaBarre, who will begin his first term on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners in January. They were talking at a holiday reception held prior to the Dec. 5 county board meeting.

Officers of the board earn more than other commissioners. The board chair, Conan Smith, is currently paid $18,500. The board vice chair, Alicia Ping, earns $16,000, while chairs of the board’s ways & means committee (Rolland Sizemore Jr.) and working session (Yousef Rabhi) are each paid $16,500. Starting next year, all board chairs will receive $3,000 over their base salary. In a friendly amendment added to the resolution on Dec. 5 by Yousef Rabhi, the board vice chair will receive an extra $1,000 over the base salary.

Currently, commissioners also have a $3,550 flex account to use for per diem and mileage reimbursements, training or other authorized expenses. For example, a per diem of $25 per authorized meeting is allowed, as is mileage driven to those meetings – at a current rate of $0.555 per mile. Some commissioners don’t use their flex accounts, however, and most don’t use the entire amount. The payments are administered through the county clerk’s office.

The resolution given final approval on Dec. 5 changes that approach. Starting in 2013,  commissioners will receive stipend payments based on the number of meetings that a commissioner is likely to attend for a particular appointment. One or two meetings per year would pay $50, three or four meetings would pay $100, and the amounts increase based on the number of meetings. At the high end, more than 24 meetings would pay $1,000. Commissioners will be able to waive their stipends by giving written notice to the county clerk.

Here’s the stipend schedule:

Washtenaw County board of commissioners, compensation, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Stipend schedule of payments for Washtenaw County board of commissioners, starting in 2013.

The county clerk’s office is compiling a spreadsheet listing the boards, commissions and committees on which county commissioners serve, and the amount of the stipend for each group.

Changes to compensation for an upcoming term must be set by the board before that term starts. So for the two-year term beginning in January 2013, any changes in compensation must be made before the end of 2012. The administration of per diem and other compensation is governed by the board’s rules and regulations. [.pdf of county board rules & regulations]

Commissioner Compensation: Board Discussion

Wes Prater pointed to the importance of tracking the number of meetings that commissioners attend, because the stipend payments will be made automatically. Commissioners need to be accountable for attendance, he said, noting that board rules address this issue.

Specifically, the current board rules state:

Habitual non‐attendance of Commissioners at meetings to which they have been appointed shall be reported to the Chair of the Board. If a member is absent three consecutive times without a reasonable excuse, he or she will be considered as having vacated his or her seat and a new Commissioner shall be appointed by the Chair of the Bard and confirmed by a majority vote of the Board members elected and serving.

Leah Gunn suggested addressing this when the new board convenes in January, as part of adopting its board rules. Conan Smith agreed, acknowledging that some accountability is lost in this stipend approach.

Ronnie Peterson stressed that because the number of commissioners on the board is decreasing from 11 to 9, the overall budget for commissioners is decreasing – despite the raises for individual commissioners. He said he would never have voted for an increase. [Peterson had been absent from the Nov. 7 meeting, when these changes were given initial approval.]

Gunn pointed out that the overall budget for commissioners will be decreasing. [The line item for the board in 2013 is $492,623. That's lower than the 2012 budget of $505,664 but higher than the original 2013 line item amount of $489,165 that was proposed last year. It's also higher than the $477,736 line item for the board in 2011.]

Gunn also said that because the new board will be reduced in size, each individual commissioner will have a heavier workload.

Outcome: The compensation changes were approved, with dissent from Dan Smith (R-District 2).

2013 Budget Approval

A public hearing and final approval for Washtenaw County’s 2013 general fund budget of $102.84 million, with a net increase of one full-time position, were on the Dec. 5 agenda. [.pdf of 2013 Washtenaw County budget]

Raman Patel, Verna McDaniel, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, apportionment, equalization, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Raman Patel, the county’s equalization director, and county administrator Verna McDaniel.

The county works on a two-year budget planning cycle. In late 2011, commissioners set the budget for 2012 and 2013. However, state law mandates that the board must approve the budget annually. At its Nov. 7 meeting, commissioners gave initial approval to a budget “reaffirmation” for 2013, including several proposed adjustments. The original 2013 budget proposed a year ago was for general fund revenues and expenses of $97.066 million – $5.774 million less than the budget that was ultimately approved this month.

Property taxes typically account for about 63% of revenues, and the general fund budget is based on an operating millage rate of 4.5493 mills. Because property values have not decreased as much as originally anticipated, the county expects about $2.4 million more in property tax revenues for 2013 than it had previously accounted for in the 2013 budget. The 2013 budget now assumes that property tax revenues will be 2% lower than in 2012. The 2013 budget includes a planned use of $3.287 million from the fund balance. Of that, about $2 million is estimated to be carried over from a budget surplus in 2012.

The largest expenditures relate to personnel, which accounts for 66% of general fund expenses. The 2013 budget shows a $4.7 million increase in that category, compared to the original 2013 budget that commissioners approved in 2011. According to a staff memo, those additional costs relate to increases in fringe benefits, medical costs, and a higher number retirees than expected. There were 118 retirements in 2011, which added to pension costs.

2013 Budget: Public Hearing

Thomas Partridge was the only person to speak at a public hearing on the budget. He urged the board to find ways to increase revenues, including asking voters to approve a millage increase. He also criticized what he called the right-wing, regressive agenda of Gov. Rick Snyder and other Republicans, saying it would take the state back to pre-World War II conditions by eliminating help for deserving residents.

2013 Budget: Board Discussion

Other than comments regarding commissioner compensation and the 1.5% pay adjustment for employees, there was no additional discussion about the budget.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously gave final approval to the county’s 2013 general fund budget.

2012 Apportionment Report

The annual apportionment report provides details of the 2012 taxable valuations for property in the county, by municipality. A preliminary report had been presented to commissioners at their Oct. 17 meeting, and a final report was on the Dec. 5 agenda. [.pdf of final 2012 apportionment report]

The report also includes the amount of millages levied and the dollar amounts collected in taxes. December tax bills were mailed out to property owners based on these calculations.

This year, all the taxing entities in Washtenaw County are levying a total of $621.687 million in property taxes – a slight drop from $622 million in 2011 and $639 million in 2010. The county alone will levy about $80.578 million this year, compared to roughly $81 million in 2011 and $83 million in 2010.

The amount of money generated for the city of Ann Arbor through its millages will be increasing, due to the slightly increased valuation in Ann Arbor property values – from a total of 4,634,891,157 in 2011 to  $4,683,218,542 in 2012.

Raman Patel – the county’s long-time equalization director – attended the Dec. 5 meeting, but was not asked to address the board. Patel actually retired at the end of 2011, but has been working for the county on a contract basis in 2012. He is being paid $124,990 this year.

Outcome: The board approved the final 2012 apportionment report, without discussion.

Appointments to Veterans Affairs Committee

Commissioners were asked to make three appointments to the county’s dept. of veterans affairs committee. The nominations put forward by board chair Conan Smith were for Gregg Weaver, Robert Fletcher and Ira Brownridge. Weaver and Fletcher are reappointments with four-year terms. Brownridge, a veteran of the conflict in Iraq, was nominated for a vacancy following the death of Eddie Steele, a World War II veteran.

Veterans posts in the county had recommended the appointments of three different men: John Kinzinger, David “Doc” Martinez, and Elmer White – all veterans of the Vietnam war, and active in the Washtenaw County chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America.

The county’s dept. of veterans affairs, located at 2155 Hogback Road, is supported by a tax of 0.0286 mills, which is levied in December. That rate is expected to raise $390,340 in revenues for use during 2013. In September of 2012, commissioners voted to raise the rate from 0.025 mills, which brought in $344,486 in 2012. The board was briefed on the department’s activities by Michael Smith, the department’s director, at its Sept. 5 meeting.

Veterans Affairs Committee: Public Commentary

Several veterans spoke during the evening’s two opportunities for public commentary.

John Kinzinger of Ann Arbor began by noting that he and other veterans had spoken to commissioners earlier this year in support of an increase in the millage to fund services for indigent veterans. Tonight, he said, the board would be voting on three positions for the county’s veterans affairs committee, and there were about 20 people in the room who qualified for those positions. Kinzinger described the work they’ve done for local veterans in need, including delivering Thanksgiving Day dinners to the families of indigent veterans. He noted that the county’s veterans affairs committee oversees a budget of about $350,000, and said that the committee members need to be veterans who are active in this community. They need to be familiar with community affairs, and have backgrounds in finance and business. Kinzinger said he wasn’t suggesting that the previous committee members have been delinquent, but the committee could be much more proactive. He hoped the board would select the veterans who would best serve those goals.

Doug Fuller, John Kinzinger, Vietnam War veterans, Washtenaw County road commission, Washtenaw County dept. of veterans affairs, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Doug Fuller, right, talks with veterans who attended the Dec. 5 county board meeting. Fuller was reappointed to the county road commission during the meeting. Seated in the background is John Kinzinger, who spoke during public commentary about appointments to the veterans affairs committee.

In his second turn at public commentary, Kinzinger said that he, Martinez and White have received recommendations that represent about 80% of membership in the county’s veterans groups. He highlighted the medals that Martinez was wearing, and said those “didn’t come out of a Cracker Jack box.” He described some of Martinez’s background and qualifications, and said he couldn’t imagine anyone who’d be more concerned about veterans. Kinzinger hoped that Martinez would be considered for one of the positions.

Elmer White, an Ann Arbor resident, told commissioners that he’s an attorney. He noted that until June of 2012, there was only one qualification to serve on the veterans affairs committee – its members needed to have been honorably discharged from the military. Now, however, there’s a three-pronged test mandated by the state. In addition to an honorable discharge, members must have a recommendation from at least one veterans post in the county, and have demonstrated knowledge, skills and experience in public service, business or finance. [The changes were enacted by the state legislature in MCL 35.621]

White told the board that they need to carefully scrutinize the candidates that they had. He pointed out that two years ago commissioners took an oath of office to uphold the constitution and laws of the state. He highlighted the qualifications of Kinzinger, noting that over the years Kinzinger has been honored nationally, as Michigan veteran of the year, and as the Ann Arbor News citizen of the year.

White echoed Kinzinger’s remarks that the veterans affairs committee needs to be proactive. He wondered why there’s no sign on the building where the department is located, and why it’s only open four days a week. “This is a department that needs to have scrutiny and needs to have some oversight,” he said. He hoped that’s what the commissioners would do, or that they’d at least ”kick the can” to the next board when it takes office in January.

During White’s second turn at public commentary, he described the volunteer work he’d done for the county, including service on a citizens advisory board to the sheriff’s department under the previous sheriff, Dan Minzey. White described the department under Minzey as dysfunctional and said he’d dubbed Minzey the “invisible sheriff” because Minzey never attended meetings of the advisory board. But after Jerry Clayton was elected sheriff, White didn’t seek reappointment to that advisory board, he said. He also noted that he had served on the county’s historic district commission, and pointed to the installation they’d done in the lobby of the county administration building – a display honoring the USS Washtenaw. But he didn’t seek reappointment to that commission either, he said, because he felt it was time for others to get involved.

In contrast, he said, it seems like getting appointed to the veterans affairs committee is like being appointed to the Supreme Court. The board needs to rethink that tradition when the veterans affairs department is dysfunctional, he said. White noted that he had attended recent meetings of the committee, and hadn’t been impressed. Regardless of the board’s decision on the committee appointments, he urged commissioners to attend the Dec. 18 meeting of the committee and see for themselves how it functions.

Marvin Rivers of Chelsea, vice president of the Washtenaw County chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said he strongly urged commissioners to consider the appointments of Kinzinger, White and Martinez. He could attest to their leadership and caring about veterans issues. Rivers said the three men would serve with great dignity, motivation and wisdom.

Bob London of Saline told the board that he’s a former Marine who had served with Martinez in Vietnam, and that he also has worked with commissioner Ronnie Peterson in the past. He felt that members of the veterans affairs committee should be changed every four years, so that there would be people with new ideas.

Veterans Affairs Committee: Board Discussion

The board voted on all other appointments as part of its consent agenda (see below), but pulled out the veterans affairs committee for separate consideration.

Several commissioners thanked all the veterans for their service, and for coming to the meeting. Wes Prater noted that he’d never seen this number of veterans attend a county board meeting, and to him it showed a high level of concern about the department.

Rolland Sizemore Jr., Dan Smith, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Commissioners Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) and Dan Smith (R-District 2).

Rolland Sizemore Jr. wondered why no “lady” veterans had applied, and he felt there needed to be recruitment to encourage them to apply. Barbara Bergman objected to the term “lady” – there are men and women, without judging whether they are gentlemen or ladies, she said. “I say that as a woman who might not always be a lady.”

Dan Smith noted that Friday, Dec. 7 was Pearl Harbor Day, when he would be flying the flag at his home at half mast. He was disappointed by the nominations that were brought forward by the board chair as appointments to the veterans affairs committee. He understood that the board is not obligated to follow the recommendations of the local veterans posts. But nine posts recommended the same three people and the board didn’t select even one of those people, he observed. He wanted to see at least the appointment of one of those recommendations to fill the post that was vacant.

Leah Gunn said she supported the three people that were being nominated. The two people who were being reappointed [Weaver and Fletcher] have served honorably on the committee, she said. And Gunn noted that the position previously filled by a World War II veteran [Eddie Steele] is being filled by an Iraqi war veteran [Brownridge]. It’s time to recognize the service of the younger generation of veterans, she concluded.

Ronnie Peterson stated that the county has many distinguished citizens who have honorably served this great nation. But one concern he had was about the process of these appointments. The local veterans posts have made recommendations, but they should also have some input in determining the criteria for making these appointments, he said.

Peterson clarified with Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, that the state statute limits the number of committee members to five. Peterson felt that the three men recommended by the veterans posts would be good choices, but so would the three men who were nominated by the board chair. In this case, he said, he would trust the board chair and support the nominations. But he hoped that the next board chair would revisit the process issue.

Wes Prater, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Wes Prater (D-District 4), at the county board’s Nov. 7, 2012 meeting.

Prater argued that the board wasn’t following the state statute or its own board rules and policy in making the appointments of Weaver, Fletcher and Brownridge. He criticized board chair Conan Smith, contending that Smith has previously disregarded board policy – by not issuing a request for proposals (RFP) for animal control services. Prater argued that the county clerk’s office hadn’t received the appropriate application materials for Brownridge by the stated deadline – a point that Hedger disputed. Prater contended that the three men who were recommended by the veterans posts had done exactly what they were supposed to do – applying in the proper way. If someone wants to apply, “they need to do their homework.”

Prater noted that Smith could withdrawal the nominations, but if they moved forward, Prater would vote against them. “That’s your prerogative,” Smith replied.

Alicia Ping asked Hedger to address some of the concerns Prater had raised. Hedger acknowledged that he and Prater disagreed about whether the process had complied with the law. Hedger believes that it did. The notice that the county placed in local publications and that was sent to veterans posts to seek applications referenced only a letter of interest and resume, he noted – not a recommendation from a veterans post. While the state statute does require a letter of recommendation, there’s not deadline attached to that, he said. In theory, a letter of recommendation could be brought forward even at that meeting, up until the appointments had been made, Hedger said.

As for Brownridge’s recommendation, Hedger reported that it had been hand-delivered on Nov. 16 to the county administrator’s office. He acknowledged that Prater believed it should have been taken to the county clerk’s office before the Nov. 16 deadline for application, but Hedger again restated that there was not a deadline for letters of recommendation. [The recommendation for Brownridge came from Mark Lindke, a member of the American Legion Post #117 in Manchester and former director of the county's dept. of veterans affairs. Lindke attended the Dec. 5 meeting but did not formally address the board.]

Regarding the public commentary about the qualifications required by state statute, Hedger stressed the importance of the word “or” in the list of “public service, business or finance.” A veteran who has served in the military overseas in a war zone has demonstrated the ultimate public service, he said.

Hazelette Robinson, Michael Smith, Andy Brush, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, Washtenaw County dept. of veterans affairs, Washtenaw Community Health Organiztion

From left: Hazelette Robinson, Michael Smith, and Andy Brush. Robinson is chief of staff for the Washtenaw Community Health Organization. Smith is director of the county’s dept. of veterans affairs. Brush is the county’s IT manager.

Prater replied that Hedger’s theory about there being no deadline for letters of recommendation “doesn’t stand water.”

Ping supported Gunn’s comments about the need for a representative from the younger generation of veterans, as well as the need for continuity of the reappointments. She said she’d support the nominations.

Conan Smith said he was sorry that Prater felt he had tried to abuse the process. These are appointments of the board and reflect the board’s values, Smith said. He hoped no one left with the impression that he was some kind of a “kingmaker” who chose these appointments without the support of the board. The recommendations from veterans posts need to be balanced with other factors, including diversity. Smith said there had been some great conversations on this issue over the past few weeks, and he was confident that the appointees would represent the best interests of local veterans.

At this point, Gunn called the question – a procedural move that, if approved by the majority of commissioners, would end debate and force a vote on the resolution.

Outcome on calling the question: The motion passed 10-1, with dissent by Wes Prater (D-District 4).

Outcome: Commissioners approved the appointments of Gregg Weaver, Robert Fletcher and Ira Brownridge on a 9-2 vote, with dissent from Dan Smith (R-District 2) and Wes Prater (D-District 4).

At the end of the meeting, Prater again raised the issue of the appointments, saying he wouldn’t leave until the board had finished what it had started. Both the law and board policies need to be clarified, he said. Veterans who had come to the meeting were being “slapped in the face,” Prater contended. The veterans who had applied had done everything they’d been asked to do, he said, yet “look what you did to them.”

At this point, Leah Gunn moved to adjourn, a motion that was supported by the majority of the board.

Some of the veterans seemed to think there would be an opportunity for public commentary at the end of the board meeting. In previous years, that was true. But in January of 2012 Conan Smith brought forward a proposal to shorten the time available per speaking turn – from five to three minutes – and to eliminate one of two agenda slots for public commentary. The majority of commissioners supported those changes, and the final public commentary slots for the ways & means committee meetings and regular board meetings – which are held back-to-back – were eliminated.

As the board adjourned on Dec. 5, John Kinzinger came up to the podium and began addressing the commissioners, most of whom were getting up to leave the boardroom. As they departed, he told them he was very disappointed in the appointments. “You failed us,” he said.

Other Appointments

The board had made the bulk of its appointments to various county committees, commissions and boards at its Nov. 7, 2012 meeting, which had been preceded by an appointments caucus that was attended by all board members except Ronnie Peterson.

However, a few additional appointments and adjustments were proposed on Dec. 5.

  • Washtenaw County road commission: Doug Fuller was reappointed to a six-year term. Last month, board chair Conan Smith had recommended holding off on that appointment, saying he wanted to give the new county board – who will take office in January – some flexibility in discussing the future of the road commission, including a possible consolidation with county operations. However, in an email to the board on the morning of Dec. 5, Smith stated: “Although I am hopeful that the board next year will discuss the structure of our road commission, I’m convinced by leveler heads to make our appointment decisions based on current reality rather than the potential of that change.”
  • Washtenaw County parks & recreation commission: Janis Bobrin was appointed as a citizen representative to a term ending Dec. 31, 2014. Bobrin has served on WCPARC in the position of county water resources commissioner, a job she held for 24 years. However, she did not seek re-election this year and was replaced in that WCPARC slot by the new water resources commissioner, Evan Pratt.
  • Brownfield redevelopment authority board: Mark Heusel and Victoria Pebbles were reappointed for three-year terms ending Dec. 15, 2015.
  • Natural areas technical advisory committee (NATAC): The previous appointment of Kris Olsson was revised to end on Dec. 31, 2013. This was characterized as an administrative change to align the terms so that the correct number of positions expire each year. Also, the board voted to rescind the appointment of Layla Aslani – commissioners had made six appointments on Nov. 7, but there are only five open slots. NATAC is an advisory board for the county’s natural areas preservation program.
  • Historic district commission: Leslie Ledbetter’s term was clarified as ending on Dec. 31, 2013. Hers had been among the appointments made last month, but the board had not indicated who would be appointed to the shorter term on the commission.
  • Emergency medical services commission: Kristopher Thompson was appointed to a three-year term ending Dec. 31, 2015.

The board did not make appointments to the one open position on the community action board, which had been discussed at the Nov. 7 appointments caucus. There was no indication when that appointment might be made.

Outcome: Without discussion, these appointments and adjustments were approved unanimously.

2013 Board Meeting Calendar

Annual approval of the board’s meeting calendar is normally a routine agenda item. On Dec. 5, Ronnie Peterson raised concerns about the proposed calendar’s administrative briefings, which were scheduled in weeks prior to the regular board meetings. He didn’t like the fact that the briefings would be held in the administration conference room rather than the boardroom, saying he objected to going into a “backroom” to discuss the public’s business.

Leah Gunn, Mary Udoji, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Washtenaw County commissioner Leah Gunn (D-District 9), left, talks with Mary Udoji at a reception held prior to the county board’s Dec. 5 meeting.

By way of background, in March 2011 the board voted to eliminate the briefings entirely. That decision was made in the wake of criticisms by Peterson, who did not attend the briefings because of his objections to the location, which he believed was too far out of the public eye. [In the boardroom, meetings can be broadcast and recorded for viewing online and on cable access TV. But briefings held in the conference room, even though they were open to the public, were not recorded.] After that March 2011 vote, a weekly agenda-setting meeting took the place of briefings, attended by senior staff and just three commissioners: Smith, as board chair; Rolland Sizemore Jr., chair of the ways & means committee; and Yousef Rabhi, chair of the working sessions. Because the meetings did not involve a quorum of commissioners, they were not required to be open to the public.

Later in 2011, the briefings were re-instituted, scheduled at 4 p.m. on the Tuesday during the week prior to the board’s regular Wednesday meetings. The time – prior to the end of a typical workday – proved difficult for some commissioners to attend. So at the board’s first meeting in January 2012, Dan Smith proposed amending the calendar schedule so that administrative briefings would be held at 6 p.m. prior to the 6:30 p.m. working sessions, which are typically held on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Ultimately, the briefings were wrapped into the working sessions as the first agenda item, and the start time for those sessions was moved up to 6 p.m.

Because board meetings are held on the first and third Wednesdays of each month, the change meant a nearly two-week span between the tentative agenda being reviewed at the briefing and the next board meeting. So often there are few agenda items ready to be brought forward at these briefings, and discussions are not as robust as they were when the briefings were held a week prior to the board meetings.

The proposed 2013 calendar reverted to the way briefings were handled prior to March 2011.

At the board’s Dec. 5 meeting, Yousef Rabhi responded to Peterson, saying that the calendar was open for discussion. He noted that the board’s current approach seemed to be working well. Starting earlier this year, the board has held its administrative briefings immediately prior its working sessions, so that the briefings can be televised. He said he’d be fine with eliminating the separate briefings that were listed on the 2013 calendar, and rolling those briefings into the working session meetings.

There were no objections from other commissioners to this change. Peterson joked that he wanted to express his appreciation to the board’s incoming chair – an allusion to Rabhi’s likelihood of becoming chair in 2013. Commissioners will elect officers at their first meeting in January, and Rabhi has indicated his interest in that position.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved the 2013 calendar, as amended.

Farewells to Outgoing Commissioners

At its last meeting of the year, Washtenaw County commissioners recognized the service of four outgoing members, as well as the retiring county water resources commissioner.

Farewells to Outgoing Commissioners: Public Commentary

Julie Steiner, executive director of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance, thanked the commissioners who were leaving the board, but singled out Leah Gunn and Barbara Bergman for special praise for being “absolute champions” and suffering great indignities over the years in their support of services for the homeless. “The battles are not over yet,” Steiner said, so she encouraged the other commissioners to stay strong. She provided print copies of the WHA’s most recent data report on homelessness in the county, and said she’d be returning to talk about how to resolve these issues.

Kathleen Timberlake, a Scio Township resident, thanked the outgoing commissioners on behalf of those who worked to restore the East Delhi bridge over the Huron River. A historic marker is now in place, she noted. The restoration had been one of the best decisions that the county had made, she said, especially since most of the funds came from federal sources. The bridge and its setting is one of the county’s top tourist draws, she said, bringing lots of national attention to this area.

Farewells to Outgoing Commissioners: Resolutions of Appreciation

The board gave resolutions of appreciation to Democrats Barbara Bergman and Leah Gunn, who represent Ann Arbor districts and did not seek re-election, as well as Democrat Wes Prater and Republican Rob Turner, who were not successful in their re-election bids on Nov. 6. Prater, a York Township resident, currently represents District 4. Due to redistricting that took effect during this election cycle, he faced fellow incumbent Alicia Ping in the new District 3 – an election that Ping, a Republican, won. Turner, who lives in Chelsea and represents District 1, was defeated on Nov. 6 by Democrat Kent Martinez-Kratz.

Janis Bobrin, Barbara Bergman, Sally Petersen, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, Washtenaw County water resources commissioner, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Washtenaw County water resources commissioner Janis Bobrin, county commissioner Barbara Bergman (D-District 8) and Sally Petersen, an Ann Arbor city councilmember. Bobrin and Bergman did not run for re-election in 2012, and are serving their last month in office. They were talking to Petersen at a reception held prior to the county board’s Dec. 5 meeting, in the lobby of the county administration building.

Former county administrator Bob Guenzel showed up to read the resolution for Bergman, who was first elected in 1994. He joked that he was speaking as “one retiree to another.” Bergman was recognized for her work on several county initiatives, including the Washtenaw Community Health Organization, where she’ll continue to serve as a board member.

Jeff Irwin, a former county commissioner who now represents District 53 in the state House of Representatives, had intended to present Gunn’s resolution, but was held up in Lansing during a raucous lame duck session. Instead, Yousef Rabhi made the presentation, joking that he was “channeling” Irwin. Gunn’s tenure on the county board dates back to 1996. She also currently serves as chair of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, an appointed position.

Gunn gave commissioners two pieces of advice: Listen to each other, and “trust Verna” – a reference to county administrator Verna McDaniel.

Board chair Conan Smith delivered the resolution to Turner, who had been first elected in 2010 and served only one term. Smith joked about how he’d been “scared” by Turner’s height when they first met, but the fact that Turner was a Republican “really scared me.” Smith said Turner had a big heart and cared about serving the public. Turner had been a mentor, Smith said, and an incredible asset to the county.

In his remarks, Turner described the board and staff as an extended family, and said they had been in his prayers and in his family’s prayers. He praised the staff, and urged commissioners to support McDaniel and “lift her up.”

Mary Jo Callan, Rob Turner, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

County commissioner Rob Turner (R-District 1), right, talks with Mary Jo Callan, director of the county/city of Ann Arbor office of community & economic development.

Prater’s resolution of appreciation was presented by Rolland Sizemore Jr., who said they’d been friends for a long time. Prater said, “I’ve been kicked around a lot, but it’s been a lot of fun. After a while you learn how to take it.” He joked that he appreciated other commissioners putting up with him, adding “now it’s Barbara’s turn” – a reference to his wife.

All four commissioners were presented with wooden seals of the county, engraved with their names and dates of service. When Prater received his seal, he held it up and said, “This is two that I’ve gotten – but I’m not starting a collection!” Prater first served on the board from 2001 to 2006, was defeated in 2006 but elected again in 2008.

The new nine-member county board will take office in January 2013.

Also recognized on Dec. 5 was Democrat Janis Bobrin, the county water resources commissioner who has served in that role since she was first elected in 1988. She also decided not to run for re-election this year and endorsed fellow Democrat Evan Pratt, who won the Nov. 6 election for that position.

Gunn made the presentation to Bobrin, saying that Gunn knew her before she became water resources commissioner. Bobrin “will be missed very, very much,” Gunn said.

Bobrin told commissioners that she could only accomplish what she’d done because of the board’s support in authorizing innovative programs and passing ordinances related to environmental protection. Some people call Washtenaw a “model county,” she said, because it’s at the forefront of environmental issues and people work together toward that goal. “I don’t know if you guys know how unusual that is.”

Toward the end of the meeting, Ronnie Peterson also spoke at length in praise of Bobrin and the outgoing commissioners, paying special tribute to Turner. Peterson, a Democrat, described Turner as his “buddy” and said he respected Turner, who “lives what he talks about in his life.”

A holiday reception held prior to the start of the Dec. 5 meeting included recognition of the outgoing commissioners.

Remembrance for Patrick Barrie

Patrick Barrie, executive director of the Washtenaw Community Health Organization, died suddenly this month and was honored at the Dec. 5 county board meeting with a moment of silence.

Several WCHO staff members – including chief of staff Hazelette Robinson – attended the meeting, and stood with commissioners Barbara Bergman and Felicia Brabec as they marked Barrie’s passing. Brabec was appointed earlier this year as the board’s liaison to WCHO. Bergman had held that role for several years, and now serves as a citizen representative on the WCHO board.

Bergman spoke briefly, saying that Barrie’s death is a great loss for people who use WCHO services. “They have lost a champion,” she said, “and I have lost the dearest of friends.”

Communications & Commentary

During the evening there were multiple opportunities for communications from the administration and commissioners, as well as public commentary. Here are some highlights.

Communications & Commentary: Road Commission

In his final liaison report to the board, Rob Turner highlighted the Washtenaw County road commission’s budget, which he said now will show a slight surplus. However, he added, projected funding levels will likely decrease the commission’s fund balance in future years.

Turner provided a handout – which had been posted on the road commission’s website in mid-November – showing that the number of road commission employees in 2012 was the same as in 1960: 106. During that time, the county’s population had doubled from 172,440 to 347,962 and the total miles of county roads and state trunkline roads had increased 26% from 3,130 miles to 3,950 miles.

Communications & Commentary: The Washtenaw Ride

Wes Prater asked for an update on The Washtenaw Ride, saying it was his understanding that the city of Ypsilanti remained a member of that transit authority.

Three municipalities had previously voted to join the authority. Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, confirmed that two of those municipalities – Ypsilanti Township and the city of Saline – had subsequently voted to opt out, but he wasn’t sure whether Ypsilanti had taken that action.

Prater indicated that this is something the next county board needed to deal with.

The county had been the entity to file articles of incorporation with the state of Michigan to form the new transit authority under Act 196 of 1986. That action had been preceded by the development of a 30-year transit master plan and a five-year service plan by the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, over a more than two-year period. The county’s role was limited to filing the articles of incorporation, but county commissioners were not unified in support of the effort. The final vote to pass the articles of incorporation and a related four-party agreement – taken on Aug. 1, 2012 – was 6-4.

The Washtenaw Ride was ultimately incorporated on Oct. 3, 2012, but local communities had the opportunity to opt-out of participation – and most of the 28 local municipalities did. The move that essentially killed the effort came from the Ann Arbor city council on Nov. 8, when councilmembers unanimously voted to opt out as well. Their action terminated a four-party agreement – between Washtenaw County, the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and the AATA – that would have governed a transition from the AATA to a countywide authority. Until Ann Arbor’s decision, those jurisdictions still participating in the new authority included more than half the county’s population, and included the county’s largest population centers: Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, and Saline.

Prior to the Dec. 5 meeting, commissioner Dan Smith had indicated that he might bring forward a resolution to officially dissolve the transit authority – to dispel any doubt about the future of The Washtenaw Ride. He had characterized it as a housekeeping item and a way to give local communities a “clean slate” if they want to pursue other alternatives to expanded public transit. However, he did not present a formal resolution on Dec. 5.

Communications & Commentary: Thomas Partridge

In addition to the public hearing on the 2013 budget, Thomas Partridge spoke during both opportunities for public commentary on Dec. 5. Referencing the discussion about the veterans affairs committee, Partridge said he had been proud to serve in the ROTC when he was in college, and he urged commissioners to support services for veterans and all other who needed help. He described a woman who was homeless and selling issues of Groundcover News just a block or so away from the county administration building – as he’d met her on his way to the meeting. He urged employees who were receiving the “county-provided Christmas bonus” to donate it to a community foundation fund that he proposed the board establish. Such a fund could be used to provide housing support services and to further the goal of eliminating homelessness, he said.

Responding to Partridge, Barbara Bergman called Groundcover News the “best deal in Washtenaw County, noting that she buys one every Saturday for $1 and then uses the $1 coupon to get coffee at the People’s Food Co-op.

Present: Barbara Bergman, Felicia Brabec, Leah Gunn, Ronnie Peterson, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith, Dan Smith, Rob Turner.

Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013 at 6:30 p.m. at the county administration building, 220 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor. The ways & means committee meets first, followed immediately by the regular board meeting. [Check Chronicle event listings to confirm date.] (Though the agenda states that the regular board meeting begins at 6:45 p.m., it usually starts much later – times vary depending on what’s on the agenda.) Public commentary is held at the beginning of each meeting, and no advance sign-up is required.

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