Howard Resigns From City Commission; Five Seats Open In Fall Election
By Beth Milligan | June 29, 2019
Traverse City Commissioner Michele Howard announced Friday she will resign from the commission effective September 23 – a move that will result in five commission seats being up for grabs in the November 5 election.
Howard is resigning on the advice of legal counsel because of a potential conflict of interest in her new role as director of Traverse Area District Library (TADL). The TADL board of directors unanimously chose Howard earlier this month to take the reins October 1 from retiring library director Gail Parsons Juett. Howard told The Ticker at the time she didn’t see any conflicts between her new job and her role as city commissioner – timing or otherwise – and that she believed the two positions would in fact complement one another.
But TADL board members raised questions of whether Howard holding two public offices could potentially violate Michigan’s Incompatible Public Offices Act, which prohibits public employees from holding two or more “incompatible offices” simultaneously. After research and discussion, library attorney Karrie Zeits and City Attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht met with Howard and informed her they believed her dual roles would violate the act and that she should only serve in one position.
“There’s nothing specifically (in the act) about serving as a library director and city commissioner, but there are two things that are a main consideration,” explains Trible-Laucht. “One is the city commission appoints two board members of TADL, so it would be like (Howard) was appointing her own boss.” Even if Howard were to recuse herself from such votes, Trible-Laucht notes “there’s also a charter provision that requires city commissioners to vote on anything where they don’t have a financial conflict of interest…or it’s a breach of duty. Arguably, if there’s a requirement to vote on something (like TADL appointments) and a commissioner wouldn’t be able to vote because of their other office, that could be a breach of duty.”
The City of Traverse City and TADL also have a long-standing contractual relationship, according to Trible-Laucht. Michigan’s attorney general’s office has advised that if two public entities contract with one another, it would pose a conflict if an individual served on both bodies since “they’re standing on both sides of the contract,” according to Trible-Laucht. “When you read all of that together, it very probably falls under (a violation of) that statute” for Howard to hold both positions, the city attorney says.
Howard say she’s “disappointed” to have to step down, but that “leading TADL is a dream job” and she doesn’t want to serve under a cloud of conflict or appearance of impropriety on the city commission. “I’ve always been very cautious about perceptions of any type of conflict at all with my position,” she says. “I just want to be honest with people. I said if there was any chance of incompatibility, I would resign, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Howard says she’s proud of her nearly three years on the commission, saying she believed she helped “move the city forward in a positive direction.” She continues: “It’s not easy being a city commissioner, but it’s really rewarding. Someday when I’m retired, I hope to run for office again. But for now this is where I’m at, and I know I can do great things at the library, too.”
Several commissioners expressed their remorse over Howard’s resignation Friday. “I have nothing but the utmost respect for Michele,” says Commissioner Roger Putman. “She’s been a great fellow commissioner, and we’re going to miss her a great deal.” Mayor Jim Carruthers singles out Howard’s “good standing” with constituents, careful research on issues, and thoughtfulness as qualities he observed while she served. “Honestly, I’m disappointed that she’s being asked or forced to do this,” he says. “It adds another open seat (during the election). I just hope we get some quality people who are willing to spend the time and effort in being a commissioner that Michele did.”
Howard’s resignation comes in time to allow her seat to be filled in the November 5 election. Candidates running for her seat would inherit the remainder of her term, serving from November 2019 to November 2021. Meanwhile, the seats of Commissioners Putman, Amy Shamroe, and Richard Lewis are also up for grabs – all of which are four-year terms and would go through 2023. Carruthers is also up for reelection this fall for a two-year mayoral term lasting through 2021.
Candidates interested in running for any of the above seats must file nominating petitions and other required documentation with the City Clerk's Office by July 23 at 4pm. Candidates must be city residents over the age of 18 who are registered to vote and not in debt to the city. To date, only one candidate – Shamroe – has returned a completed filing application to the city clerk’s office. However, Carruthers and Putman both tell The Ticker they are collecting signatures now and plan to defend their seats this fall, and other interested candidates have picked up nomination packets from the city clerk's office. Lewis previously announced he will not seek reelection in November. With five open seats, “the dynamics of the commission are going to change quite a bit,” says Putman. “I would love to see some young people on the commission and some fresh ideas.”
In the meantime, city commissioners still have one final decision to make regarding Howard’s seat at their July 8 meeting. Because Howard is resigning effective September 23 and the election is not until November 5, commissioners must decide whether to keep her seat empty until the election or temporarily appoint someone to fill it for the six weeks between Howard’s departure and the election date. Carruthers says he will advocate for keeping it empty. “That’s maybe four meetings (in that span of time), so I don’t think it’s a big deal,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any reason to appoint someone to her seat.”