Traverse City News and Events

BATA, GT County Square Off Over Board Makeup Again

By Beth Milligan | Dec. 22, 2023

A months-long simmering dispute over the makeup of the Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA) board could boil over again – with BATA threatening legal action over a potential attempt by Grand Traverse County to put two commissioners on BATA’s board. BATA’s board chair says that would violate a recent agreement reached by the two entities and amounts to a political power grab by the county, while county officials said the appointment hasn’t happened yet – making it too early to dispute – and is permissible either way under the agreement’s terms.

First, some background: The dispute between BATA and Grand Traverse County dates back to February, when BATA voted to expand its board from seven to nine members. The board then had four members appointed by Grand Traverse County, two appointed by Leelanau County, and one at-large member. The February vote added two at-large members, with the stated goal of maintaining “balance in board composition” by including representation from the City of Traverse City, BATA riders, groups like TART Trails and Norte, and rural and urban township residents.

BATA Board Chair Richard Cochrun says expanding the board was recommended by an outside consultant to reflect the region’s growing population, similar to how the Grand Traverse County board of commissioners recently expanded from seven to nine members due to population growth. But County Commissioner Brad Jewett – an appointee to the BATA board – characterized the expansion as a “scheme” that would allow BATA to start “cherry picking” its board members because the transportation authority wasn’t happy with certain county appointees. He argued that Cochrun and BATA board member Robert Fudge, by supporting the board expansion, had diluted the county’s oversight of BATA.

County commissioners voted this spring to charge both Cochrun and Fudge with “willful neglect of duty” and to “consider recalling these appointees for violating their fiduciary duty to the voter.” Cochrun and Fudge hired an attorney and sought emergency intervention in court. This summer, the two entities reached a resolution, agreeing to keep the board makeup at seven members and to have the county withdraw its plans to remove Cochrun and Fudge from BATA.

An interlocal agreement between BATA and the county was approved in August. It states that – as was the case for decades prior to this year’s controversy – BATA’s seven members will include four appointees from Grand Traverse County commissioners, two from Leelanau County commissioners, and one at-large member approved by two-thirds of the BATA board. The agreement states each county will appoint “a county commissioner to serve as a member of the BATA board” – an ex-officio member who will serve a term concurrent with their commission term – and the remaining seats will be community appointments for three-year terms.

But at a November 30 meeting, an ad hoc committee of county commissioners voted to recommend appointing two county commissioners to the BATA board: Scott Sieffert, who would serve in the ex-officio role, and Jewett, who would be appointed to a community role. That recommendation has not yet come to county commissioners for approval. However, the recommendation itself drew a swift response from BATA, who said it violates the interlocal agreement by aiming to put more than one county commissioner on the board. BATA’s board voted on December 7 to initiate a dispute process, giving Grand Traverse County until January 7 to comply with the agreement or face a lawsuit.

Some Grand Traverse County officials Wednesday said BATA’s actions were premature. Commissioner TJ Andrews noted that until county commissioners actually approve an appointment, the dispute is hypothetical. Judges don’t deal in hypotheticals, she said, adding the dispute would become “moot” if someone other than a commissioner was ultimately appointed to the citizen seat. With the ad hoc committee planning to meet again in January, Andrews made a motion to seek a two-week extension from BATA to allow the ad hoc committee to meet again and county commissioners to discuss their interpretation of the agreement before BATA takes legal action. That motion was unanimously approved by commissioners.

BATA will hold a special meeting next week to address that request, says Cochrun. However, he says the trust has been broken between BATA and the county and that he’s skeptical of the county’s extension request. “I do not believe they’ll do something fair and equitable,” he says. “I think they’re buying time to try and undermine the contract.” At the heart of the dispute is whether a county commissioner can also count as a “citizen” for the purposes of filling a BATA board appointment. County officials discussed the spirit versus the terms of the agreement Wednesday, seeming to believe that the terms – the main relevant issue legally, some argued – don’t prevent a commissioner from filling a citizen role.

If the interlocal agreement allowed commissioners to serve as citizens, however, Grand Traverse County could theoretically stack multiple appointments on the BATA board with commissioners. Cochrun says redlined drafts of the interlocal agreement show Grand Traverse County initially tried to add two commissioners to the board makeup, but those terms were rejected. County Administrator Nate Alger acknowledged that BATA sought to limit the number of commissioners on the board in negotiations, but said the county didn’t support that. Thus, “the language that you have in the agreement is what it is,” Alger said, adding the county has a legal opinion stating its interpretation that commissioners can serve in citizen roles is “the correct position on this matter.”

The dispute between BATA and Grand Traverse County doesn’t seem likely to be resolved without clear consensus around that issue going forward. “Whether we appoint a commissioner in January of 2024 or ’25, ’26, ’27, the question at hand is: Is that outlawed in the agreement?” County Commission Chair Rob Hentschel asked Wednesday. “Do we have that right as a board per the agreement that we agreed to? To me, this is a bigger issue than just one appointment period.” For BATA, an additional concern looms that at least some county commissioners don’t see the value of the transportation authority and “want to get control because they want to minimize BATA,” in Cochrun’s words.

BATA Executive Director Kelly Dunham agrees the situation “does appear to be a bit of power struggle,” though says she doesn’t know what’s driving it. “I truly don’t,” she says. “BATA is heavily funded by the federal and state governments. The local contribution to BATA’s funding is decided upon by the voters. The most recent millage request was supported by 61 percent of the voters, and they speak with their votes every five years. So I think the spirit of oversight should come from a variety of backgrounds consistent with the local millage vote.”

Dunham is hopeful BATA and Grand Traverse County can come to a resolution and move forward on better terms in 2024. “If we can get a true citizen representative that can serve as a nonpartisan member of the BATA board, that would be a big step in the right direction and could help us to start rebuilding the trust that’s been broken,” she says. “For many years, BATA was able to function with this board composition very effectively, with people who had good governance and fiscal management and were willing to volunteer their time. I believe there are a lot of people in this community still willing to do that.”

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