By Rosemary K. Otzman
After a heated discussion on issues surrounding the supervisor’s appointment of a deputy supervisor, the Van Buren Township Board of Trustees at its regular meeting Aug. 20 voted 6-1 to remove the proposed amended 2013 budget from the agenda.
Meanwhile, work on the proposed 2014 budget proceeds in the offices of departmental directors, with an Aug. 30 deadline for their proposals, in order to get ready for the public October budget sessions and required approval by the end of the year.
Supervisor Linda Combs cast the only no vote on taking the amended budget from the agenda. She later told supporters she refused to “cave” to board members who questioned her sudden, last-minute appointment of a deputy supervisor on June 14 so she could go on vacation and leave someone in charge of her office with powers to run the township.
Combs had appointed unsuccessful candidate for township clerk Karin LaMothe as her executive assistant, which became a full-time position, in January. Then LaMothe was promoted to deputy supervisor in June.
Combs said LaMothe’s pay remained the same and just her title changed. After LaMothe was appointed, budget adjustments of $45,039 were required for the 2013 budget to reflect LaMothe’s salary of $64,933, plus benefits.
Combs began the discussion on the amended budget by saying they anticipated having to take $800,000 from the landfill fund to balance the budget, but that has been cut by $291,234.
Treasurer Sharry Budd said $564,000 now will be transferred from the landfill funds. She said the township has to watch its spending.
The cuts were made by department directors, with most cuts made to training, savings because it’s been a non-election year, and putting off items until next year.
The clerk’s budget went up about $24,660, with $20,000 of that for the clerk’s fringes (insurance that he had not claimed in past years).
A savings of $1,500 was recorded in the office printing and publishing line item because of the Independent’s decrease in publishing fees.
At the workshop session, there was discussion about the unexpected “signing bonuses” of $750 each for department directors. Trustee Jeff Jahr said the directors get a salary. A “signing bonus” for approving a contract is unnecessary and distorts the budget line items, he said.
One of the budget issues for the board was that LaMothe’s title on the supervisor’s department budget is still executive assistant, though she operates under another title now and is introduced as deputy supervisor.
In the workshop session the day before the regular meeting, Treasurer Sharry Budd said she can’t pay a deputy supervisor out of a line item for executive assistant.
Combs said she could change LaMothe’s title in the budget and she would talk to the township attorney and straighten it out. But at the regular meeting the next day she said she “spoke with the folks at MTA” and they said the title made no difference and she could be paid under either one.
The MTA she referred to was the Michigan Township Association,
She stated the position is fully funded. While Jahr and other board members wanted a job description for LaMothe, Combs said the deputy supervisor doesn’t have a job description and elected officials don’t have job descriptions under law.
“This position can be designated,” Combs said, explaining the deputy can act in her absence. LaMothe has a job description as administrative assistant, she said.
Combs said LaMothe is the deputy supervisor when Combs is not there and can do everything except chair the board meeting or vote.
“This is the third time I’ve checked it with MTA,” Combs said, explaining she talked to Katherine at MTA, who trains deputies.
Jahr said Combs was going to change the line item from executive assistant to deputy supervisor and she didn’t.
“You have never come to the board to tell them what you’re doing. So suddenly you’re swearing in a deputy, but the board didn’t have time to come…” Jahr said.
“This township has never had a deputy supervisor,” Jahr continued, adding Combs could have shown other townships of Van Buren’s size with deputy supervisors, but she didn’t.
“You don’t want to give an inch,” Jahr said. “The treasurer said she couldn’t pay that line item.”
Jahr said what the MTA says makes no difference.
“I was going to take a one-week vacation,” Combs said, grumbling that it does no good to berate township officials and deputies.
“I see no reason to make a change,” Combs said.
Treasurer Budd reminded her that she said she’d make a change.
Combs said she doesn’t want to flip-flop.
“This board has not been forthright with how they feel until yesterday,” Combs said, with Trustee Brenda McClanahan and others saying that was untrue and they had told her how they felt.
Trustee Phil Hart said he supports all the directors. He said maybe some of the board members would have liked to be present to support LaMothe’s swearing in, with 45-minutes’ notice not enough.
When she was asked how many hours does a deputy supervisor work, Combs said LaMothe is not deputy supervisor unless the supervisor is not there.
“Her authority was brought into question,” Combs said, explaining what led up to her sudden decision to name a deputy supervisor.
“I said she would run my office in my absence and people thought I was putting her in charge of the township… So I appointed her,” Combs said.
“Clearly, the board has concerns,” said Trustee Hart.
“Her new title is deputy supervisor. Why not just change it?” asked Trustee Reggie Miller.
“Because people on the board want her to be administrative assistant,” Combs said.
“Why not change it?” Trustee Miller insisted.
“What is the job description…?” Trustee Hart asked.
“If she’s given additional duties, why not name them?” Miller said.
“The board was never told,” Trustee McClanahan said of Combs’ decision to name a deputy.
Miller said the decision was made out of frustration, rather than a real need.
“The law says I can appoint a deputy without board approval,” Combs said. “I don’t appreciate being second-guessed… It is what it is. MTA says it makes no difference.”
“I didn’t know,” McClanahan said of the swearing in. “You didn’t call. Reggie told me,” reffering to Trustee Miller.
“I sent emails,” Combs said.
“I didn’t get one,” McClanahan replied.
Combs said Miller obviously got one if she told McClanahan about it.
“It’s a quantum change,” Jahr said. “We’ve never had a deputy supervisor … You say it’s a simple title change … but a title carries weight.
“She’s representing herself as a deputy supervisor. You have to explain what you’re doing,” Jahr said.
“How can the directors know, if the board doesn’t know?” asked Clerk Leon Wright.
Clerk Wright said Combs talks about the MTA and the township attorney opinions, but it’s how you represent the problem to the MTA and attorney that determines how they reply. He said the other board members should be able to explain their opinions to the attorney.
“We don’t know what way we’re going with this,” Wright said.
“I didn’t ask to change the budget…” Combs said.
Jahr replied that Treasurer Budd said she couldn’t pay one line item with another line item. He said the state statute says Combs has to get approval.
“This came up yesterday and opened a whole can of worms,” Jahr said.
“The MTA says I can,” Combs said.
“The MTA is not a legal entity. It’s an organization of townships,” Jahr replied, adding that the township attorney gives an opinion depending on the way you phrase the question.
“Now she’s a deputy supervisor with no different duties,” said Miller. “… Why not give her the title?”
“Sounds to me like it’s a power play,” said Jahr and Combs responded, “It’s not a power play.”
“We should check with the auditors and attorney,” Jahr said. “You cannot use one line item to pay another line item.”
“She has been sworn in as deputy supervisor. There are no additional duties. It needed clarification,” Combs said of LaMothe’s authority.
“You knew about this,” Jahr said. “We were on a collision course.” He urged the board to vote on the amended budget.
Hart suggested they go forward with the amended budget with the title administrative assistant.
Jahr said there were still a lot of questions: “When is the supervisor absent? If Linda goes to lunch, Karin steps in?”
Jahr said part-time supervisors have full-time deputy supervisors to help them. It’s not an elected official exercising the duties of supervisor.
He said LaMothe is doing a great job and this is not about her performance.
“Apparently, it’s my way or the highway,” Jahr said of Combs’ attitude.
“No, you didn’t need to be asked,” Combs said of her decision. “Now you want me to demote her.”
Board members said that wasn’t true.
Clerk Wright said the board is clear that Combs had a right to appoint her, but the board needs to vote on her job description.
“How can she answer the phone ‘deputy supervisor’ when you’re in the building?” Jahr persisted.
Combs suggested they remove the amended budget from the agenda.
Hart said LaMothe is the human Resources Director of this building and he doesn’t know what all she does.
Human Resources Director was removed from LaMothe’s proposed title when it was discovered she did not have the credentials to quality for that. She was to learn the HR skills from Deputy Clerk Kathy Cline and take over the HR duties, which she has yet to do.
“Communications was the issue,” Hart said.
“I’ve called every single one of you to apologize. I guess that wasn’t enough,” Combs said. “I did it to define her authority.”
“She’s acting as deputy supervisor,” Jahr said. “You’re introducing her as deputy supervisor. I don’t think it’s being petty. You are creating a brand-new position we’ve never had before.”
“The only change is in title,” Combs said. “I probably should have given in yesterday. I refused to be bullied.”
The item was removed from the agenda on a 6-1 vote with Combs voting no.
Editor’s Note: The terms executive assistant and administrative assistant are used interchangeably by township officials.