The facts about Shiawassee County's hazard pay scandal

Shiawassee County’s culture of backroom dealing laid the groundwork for its latest scandal—county commissioners giving themselves “hazard pay” for working during the pandemic.

CORUNNA, Mich.—County commissioners in Shiawassee are backpedaling after a court blocked their attempt to use $65,000 of coronavirus relief money to give themselves bonuses. 

Most commissioners in Shiawassee are paid $10,000 a year for their part-time job, plus a stipend for meetings. 

Republican Commission Chair Jeremy Root awarded himself $25,000 for his bonus, more than twice his annual pay. Besides Root, Republican commissioners John Plowman and Brandon Marks each received $10,000, and the other four Republican commissioners Marlene Webster, Gregory Brodeur, Gary Holzhausen, and Cindy Garber got $5,000 each.

County administrator Brian Boggs said he decided how much most employees would get while Root “and a couple of commissioners” decided how much the seven commissioners would receive.

Their justification? It was their “hazard pay.”

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“American Rescue Plan dollars were intended to help frontline workers and families impacted by the pandemic, not elected officials,” said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) who represents neighboring counties Genesee and Saginaw.

That haphazard use of coronavirus aid immediately prompted a lawsuit against the county, leading to an injunction that prevented the money from being used as bonuses temporarily. 

Shiawassee County Prosecutor Scott Koerner then advised the commission that the bonuses were unconstitutional, leading to an abrupt course-correction from the commissioners, who then were compelled legally to return the money. 

”You can’t violate the basic process and transparency laws in our state without there being some sort of repercussion,” attorney Philip Ellison, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Shiawassee County resident Nicole Ruggiero, told WJRT.

Commissioner Boggs, who received $25,000, said the focus on commissioners was overshadowing an effort to assist county workers. He hinted that those workers would be penalized for the reaction of the public to the commission’s unconstitutional excess. 

“It was to the benefit of the employees,” he said of the bonuses, “and perhaps we should not pursue other ideas like this to get them additional funding if this is how it’s going to be received.”

Ruggiero’s lawsuit proposes instead allocating the hazard pay to people who worked the front lines of the pandemic—people who faced significant hazard in performing their duties.

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Frontline or essential workers early in the pandemic sought hazard pay for having to interact with the public on a daily basis, exposing themselves to the coronavirus constantly to keep people alive. 

Often they were doing this with scarce personal protective equipment, and always because there was no other practical means of performing their critical role in daily life. 

“I think that I earned it,” Commissioner Cindy Garber said. “I work really hard at this job. I was here in-person all through this crazy year.”

Garber said the large payment for Root was justified because he “bears the burden of all emergency orders.”

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But, doing their job in-person throughout the past year was not required for the county commission to do its job.

In fact, countless local governments in Michigan shifted to virtual meetings in light of the pandemic, even when doing so required declaring an emergency on the local level

Plus, the US Department of Commerce, for instance, limits hazard pay to 25% of wages. 

Not all of Shiawasee’s commissioners were as adamant that the bonuses were earned as Garber. Commissioner Marlene Webster, who got $5,000 before taxes were withheld, returned the money before being forced to by the county’s prosecutor.

“I never would have voted to give the board chair $25,000, to give commissioners $10,000 and $5,000,” Webster testified Monday. “Those amounts to me are just ludicrous.”

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Webster did conceptually support the bonuses but was under the impression that they would average out to $2,148 per person, with some slightly receiving more and others slightly less. She said she was “mortified” when money appeared in her bank account and didn’t know she had voted to reward herself.

Commissioner Gregory Brodeur called for Root to resign following Monday’s hearing. He said that Root no longer had the ability to effectively lead the county Board of Commissioners. Brodeur had been absent from the meeting where the bonuses were awarded.

A County Transparent as Concrete

The coronavirus hazard pay scandal has brought new attention to government transparency in Shiawassee County. Ellison, who has in the past filed several lawsuits born of similar Open Meetings Act violations, characterized the opaqueness of this process as indicative of the behavior of local government. 

“There has been a well known, commonly known aspect of Shiawassee County government that acts basically in the backroom—what I call with a wink and a nod,” Ellison told WJRT Tuesday. “Decisions are made actually before the board gets there because they’re talking to each other.”

Webster highlighted this by mentioning a time where the county commission had a vacancy. She recalled three people interviewing for the position at a meeting, but other commissioners had already decided who would be selected. They had decided, one commissioner told her, before the candidates formally presented themselves. 

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Video of that meeting doesn’t exist, alleged Webster, which is a violation of the Open Meetings Act. 

“They basically rubber stamped everything they talked about behind closed doors, so the public doesn’t really get to know firsthand what’s going on or what their thinking is,” Ellison said.

That extends beyond just the commission. One of the lawsuits Ellison mentioned was against the selection committee for the county’s treasurer two years ago, which consisted of the county clerk, prosecutor and a probate judge.

Lacking transparency isn’t just illegal under the Open Meetings Act, it erodes faith in government. State Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown) is a proponent of increased government transparency and explained its importance to The ‘Gander earlier this year

Bringing transparency both to elections and governance, Camilleri said, will improve the public’s trust and confidence in the government it elects. Right now, the lack of transparency from the local to the state level isn’t doing much to bolster public confidence, he said.

Though few governments in the state have been as consistently reliant on backroom dealing as Shiawassee.

“The arrogance of this board is outlandish,” Ruggiero said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.