County Commissioners Discuss Per Diem Spending, BATA Debate
By Beth Milligan | March 16, 2023
At least two Grand Traverse County commissioners want to change the county’s per diem policy after seeing commissioner invoices running into the thousands of dollars – some of those costs charged by commissioners for attending two meetings scheduled at the same time or for meeting with constituents, which is prohibited by the county’s per diem policy. Commissioners discussed the policy at their Wednesday meeting, where they also addressed an ongoing controversy about the expansion of BATA’s board.
Commissioners Ashlea Walter and TJ Andrews proposed changing the county’s per diem policy Wednesday to require that commissioner invoices be included as a regular report in meeting packets under the consent calendar. Walter said the move would be “one way we can hold each other accountable” for per diem spending, while Andrews said it would significantly increase “transparency” around the use of taxpayer dollars.
Walter requested commissioners discuss the policy after Grand Traverse Democrats published a recent report detailing per diem invoices from commissioners. County records pulled through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request show that per diem charges run into the thousands of dollars each year for most commissioners. According to the report, per diem reimbursements included: $17,430 total from 2019 to 2021 for Chair Rob Hentschel (2022 invoices have not been submitted), $14,700 for Vice Chair Brad Jewett from 2019 to 2022, $12,915 for former Commissioner Ron Clous from 2019 to 2022, $12,670 for Commissioner Darryl Nelson from 2021 to 2022, $5,915 for former Commissioner Gordie LaPointe from 2019 to 2020, $4,690 for Commissioner Penny Morris from 2021 to 2022, $2,590 for former Commissioner Bryce Hundley from 2019 to 2022, and $2,310 for former Commissioner Sonny Wheelock from 2019 to 2020. Former Commissioner Betsy Coffia didn’t have reimbursements listed for 2022 or 2021, but had $35 in 2020 and $1,820 in 2019.
Those reimbursements, which are separate from commissioners’ annual salaries and healthcare benefits, are expected to significantly increase in 2023. Commissioners voted 5-2 in December – with Hundley and Coffia opposed – to raise per diem rates from $35 to $65 for meetings under four hours and from $70 to $110 for meetings over four hours. The county’s per diem policy states that commissioners can charge per diem for special (not regular) county board meetings, committee meetings, and authority or commission meetings of which they are a member or to which they’ve been assigned by the commission. Commissioners are also eligible for per diem for attending meetings of local units of government (like townships, villages, and cities) within their district, as well as “meetings, seminars, conferences, and tours of an informational or educational nature which have a direct relationship to county commission duties.”
The policy notes that “per diem is not allowed for attending monthly board meetings or for any event of a ceremonial nature e.g. ribbon cuttings, grand openings, meetings with constituents, or similar events.” However, it also states that the commission “defers the judgment of per diem qualification to the individual commissioners.” That has created a “gray area,” Walter said, where commissioners are empowered to submit invoice charges according to their own judgment, even if they violate the stated rules of the per diem policy. Invoices submitted by Nelson show per diem charges for ribbon cuttings – such as a TART Trails ribbon cutting in 2021 – and numerous constituent meetings. A recent invoice submitted by Hentschel – totaling $1,430 for January and February – shows meetings with constituents, staff, and other commissioners, sometimes up to four per day, as well as meetings with only initials listed, such as “Mtg w EM” or “Mtg with C A.”
Walter noted invoices also show multiple commissioners charging for attending two separate meetings held “miles apart” at the same time. Those typically include situations where commissioners come to a board meeting of a township they represent, give a brief update, and then proceed directly to another township board meeting. Walter said it would be a better use of taxpayer dollars for commissioners to submit written reports to those meetings rather than charge $65 per meeting for a brief appearance. Some commissioners have also charged for phone calls and for watching meetings later on recorded replay – not attending in person – and have submitted invoices weeks or months late, even though the policy requires invoices to be submitted on a monthly basis and states that per diem requests for meetings more than 90 days old won’t be accepted.
“It seems like it’s become clear that some of the commission has been in violation of our per diem policy in a number of ways,” Walter said. Without consequences in place for violating the policy, Walter said invoices were “blowing up our commission budget” and “putting staff in an awkward position” of having to approve expenses not allowed under the per diem policy. “I highly doubt our constituents are OK with this,” she said.
For his part, Nelson defended his invoices and slammed criticisms of the per diem policy as a political attack. Nelson acknowledged he invoiced the county for some constituent meetings, but not all, and said those he did involved issues that required significant time to address. “I have no issues with anything I’ve turned in,” he said, adding that every per diem request he submitted was legitimate. “Bringing political crap like this to this board is offensive,” Nelson said.
Nelson pointed out that per diem invoices are already publicly available by request under FOIA.
Andrews supported a suggestion by Walter to regularly include invoices in the consent calendar so they’re more easily accessible. Andrews said that “it doesn’t sound like there’s a political will” on the commission to address the per diem policy itself, but said including invoices in packets would at least increase transparency. Noting that three commissioners – Hentschel, Scott Sieffert, and Brian McAllister – were absent Wednesday, Jewett said he wanted the full board present for further discussion and any possible action. Walter agreed to bring proposed changes back for consideration at the board’s next regular meeting.
Controversy between Grand Traverse County and BATA over BATA’s recent decision to expand its board from seven to nine members has reached a temporary détente. County commissioners were scheduled to hold a hearing Wednesday on possibly removing two county appointees to the BATA board who had supported the expansion, with some commissioners believing the move diluted the county’s influence on the board and amounted to willful neglect of duty among appointees who supported it. However, after those appointees – Richard Cochrun and Robert Fudge – hired an attorney and sought emergency intervention in court, BATA and Grand Traverse County reached an agreement to enact a 60-day pause on further action.
The agreement means Grand Traverse County will not take any action on efforts to remove appointees for two months, nor will BATA appoint or select new board members. BATA will also not change its bylaws without the county’s consent during the 60-day window. Wednesday’s hearing was pulled off the commission’s meeting agenda, with County Administrator Nate Alger instead giving an update to commissioners on the new agreement. He said next steps will include representatives from BATA, Grand Traverse County, Leelanau County, and the City of Traverse City meeting to “discuss options.” City Commissioner Mitch Treadwell, who sits on a BATA advisory board, praised the move, saying previous discussion “got a little too heated.” He added: “I think that there is a path forward to an agreement that can work for the interests of all parties.”Comment