Traverse City News and Events

County Commission Deadlocks On Censure, Approves Board Policy Change For Public Comment

By Beth Milligan | Feb. 4, 2021

Grand Traverse County commissioners Wednesday deadlocked on a resolution to censure Vice Chair Ron Clous for a recent incident in which he displayed a semi-automatic rifle during public comment – with the tie vote causing the motion to fail. Commissioners also declined to take action on an alternate resolution of redress proposed by Chair Rob Hentschel that called Clous “well intentioned” but condemned displaying weapons during public comment. While the stalled resolutions appear to signal the commission is done addressing the incident, board members also agreed Wednesday to require commissioners to refrain from reacting verbally or non-verbally to any public comment going forward.

Commissioner Darryl Nelson proposed the resolution to censure Clous, saying the vice chair demonstrated “insensitivity to or disregard of the principles set forth in the code of ethics.” A censure is a formal expression of disapproval by a governing body of one of its member’s actions. The county’s code of ethics policy, which Commissioner Betsy Coffia asked commissioners to review again Wednesday, outlines standards of conduct for elected officials “expected in fields where improper activities could damage the county’s reputation and otherwise result in serious adverse consequences to the county and to employees involved.”

Nelson’s resolution stated that elected officials must “conduct themselves at the highest personal and professional standards to promote public confidence” and “avoid even the appearance of improper conduct.” Clous’ actions – which prompted a police complaint, international headlines, and community backlash including petitions and hundreds of public comments calling for his resignation – failed to meet those ethical standards, according to Nelson.

Nelson’s resolution did not mention Hentschel, who also drew criticism for laughing when Clous displayed his rifle. Nelson emphasized that he did not believe Clous had committed a crime or act of violence or intimidation by briefly holding his gun, and said he did not think Clous should resign. But Clous “made a mistake,” Nelson said, “and as a commission, we must deal with that mistake.” Nelson said the incident reflected a “lack of judgment (that) should not have happened” and expressed concern about the message commissioners would send by not addressing it. “I do not believe we can ignore the request (of the public to address it) or ignore our responsibilities,” he said.

Coffia agreed, saying it would be difficult for the community to move on without apologies from Hentschel and Clous to indicate “personal responsibility” was being taken for the incident. “I do believe in moving forward, I do believe in trying to make amends…I too am trying to get our community to see our board can address this professionally,” she said. Not doing so would be “destructive” and “poor leadership,” Coffia said, and set a bad example for county employees who are also expected to follow the code of ethics.

Other commissioners said they didn’t see what a censure would accomplish and believed Clous had already been penalized enough by public backlash. “No matter what we do, it won’t be enough…for either side,” said Commissioner Brad Jewett. He added that a censure seemed like a form of discipline – for which he didn’t see the need if Clous’ actions weren’t illegal – and also constituted a type of public apology on behalf of the entire board. “I for one do not believe in apologizing myself for somebody else’s actions,” he said. Commissioner Penny Morris said that even if commissioners gave “people their pound of flesh, they’re not going to be satisfied,” and said she opposed the resolution because “the public already censured (Clous).” Morris said she hoped commissioners could take “positive steps to rebuild what was lost” and seize the moment as a growing opportunity. “We have so much ahead of us as a board that we could be addressing,” she said.

Commissioners voted 3-3 on Nelson’s censure resolution, with Nelson, Coffia, and Commissioner Bryce Hundley in support and Hentschel, Morris, and Jewett opposed. Clous recused himself from the vote. The deadlock caused the proposal to fail. When Hentschel asked the board if they wanted to take any action regarding a second proposal – a redress resolution the chair wrote that was pulled from a meeting agenda last week – commissioners remained silent, with Hentschel then moving on.

While commissioners did not take any formal action to address the Clous incident, they did unanimously agree to change the language of their board rules to avoid future controversy. Morris and Coffia proposed the bipartisan amendment to add language clarifying that “the board shall not comment or respond to a person who is addressing the board, either by verbal or non-verbal communication.” The board rules were also updated to say that “should an item need to be corrected to avoid public misperception, it shall be addressed at the end of public comment by the chairperson or by a board member who shall first seek permission of the chairperson.”

While Coffia said the language change on its own would not “negate the public relations and leadership crisis that we still have to handle,” she supported strengthening the policy after witnessing a pattern of “snarky comments” being made by board members during public comment in the last term. Morris said she hoped the updated rules would “minimize the chances that we’re ever going to be faced with this situation again.” Several commissioners agreed that occasional nonverbal reactions – like a nod or gasp – were likely unavoidable and that discretion would need to be used in enforcement. “We’re doing our best to come up with rules that we can all live by that are in good faith,” said Hundley.

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