February 21, 2020

Interim county administrator candidate withdraws; criticizes commissioners for delays

Commissioners discuss possibility of obtaining legal representation outside of prosecutor’s office

Posted

WEST BRANCH — Karen Folks of Flushing, who was approved by the Ogemaw County Board of Commissioners to serve as interim county administrator in a 3-2 vote on Nov. 26 last year, submitted a letter to the commissioners withdrawing her application which was read by Commissioner Craig Scott at the board’s regular meeting Thursday, Jan. 9, citing organizational discord and miscommunication among the commissioners as reasons for her withdrawal.  

The commissioners made the decision to hire an interim county administrator during its Nov. 14 meeting last year after voting to hire the Michigan Municipal League to conduct a search for a permanent county administrator. Each vote was 3-1, with commissioner Ron Vaughn providing the dissenting vote. Chairman Bruce Reetz was absent from that meeting. Vaughn and Reetz provided the dissenting votes in the decision to hire Folks. 

Folks indicated in her letter to the board that the length of time which had passed without an agreed upon contract was a key factor in her decision to rescind her application, though there is disagreement among the involved parties about why this was the case. A subcommittee comprised of commissioners Brad Neubecker and Scott worked with Folks to create a contract based upon a model from Emmet County with Ogemaw County Prosecuting Attorney LaDonna Schultz providing legal review along with consultation from Gregory Meihn, a partner with the law office of Foley and Mansfield. 

“I feel disappointed and ashamed of the way we treated this matter,” Scott said prior to reading the letter at the Jan. 9 meeting. “Six weeks for legal review. We did our interviews; we set up the whole thing. All we asked for was legal review, not to have a negotiated contract. We had a model of a contract three pages long from another county that did exactly the same thing as us. We hand it over for legal review, and it becomes nine pages long. We have other contractors that we work with — our zoning administrator is a private contractor … there are a number of contractors that we use within our powers right now — and we don’t even ask nearly as many things as this contract does.” 

Scott said there was a series of email exchanges among himself, Schultz, Meihn, Reetz and Folks regarding the proposed contract and there was a failure to come to an agreement for a variety of reasons, including language regarding liability insurance and lodging expenses. He said during the meeting that he felt the process was being dragged along to prevent an agreement from being reached. In a conversation with the Herald, Schultz said she disagreed with this assessment, stating she felt she had performed her role in a timely matter. 

“On my end, it didn’t take take long at all. I had to wait for the commissioners to submit a job description to plug into the contract,” Schultz said. “As far as I’m concerned, the prosecutor’s office typed up the contract with provisions that protected the county in case of a breach. Once I got it typed up, I gave a copy to the chair and a copy to Craig Scott. I sent a copy of the contract for her to sign. She kept it for four or five days and then indicated that she would not sign the contract. I informed the board chair and asked what they wanted me to do next, and I got no response from the board.” 

In her letter to the board, Folks stated in part, “It is apparent that the organizational discord with the new direction decided by the Board of Commissioners has significantly intensified and the resulting push-back has become an obstacle to moving forward. Confusion exists over powers and authorities; positions, roles and responsibilities seem to be inconsistent and do not necessarily coordinate with other positions, roles and responsibilities; there is a notable lack of trust; no point person exists to provide needed oversight and to assure timely accomplishment of processes; internal factions exists; miscommunication is widespread and thought to be sometimes intentional; it is questionable whether productive communication channels exist, and budgeting information, it appears, has not been as transparent as has been expected, all of which has caused the Board of Commissioners to be unable to properly and timely progress initiatives and otherwise work for the best interests of the County’s residents and other stakeholders.” 

Commissioner Jenny David stated during the meeting that she felt too many parties had become involved which only served to complicate the process.

“What I was greatly disappointed in is we formed a sub-committee which consisted of Craig and Brad,” David said. This should have been a conversation between Craig and Brad, Karen and our legal representative, and that should have been it. Until that contract was finalized between them, it should not have been brought to anybody else. I was greatly disappointed in that — the lack of confidentiality.” 

Folks further stated in her letter to the board that they should consider reallocating the money set aside for the interim county administrator position toward investing “in certain preliminary initiatives to address the internal culture, lack of effective communication systems and processes, work to reach a shared understanding of legal powers, authorities, roles and responsibilities, and start building internal capacity to positively work together as a mutually respective team.”

“Working with the Michigan Association of Counties Executive Director, Steve Currie, in a targeted workshop with members of his team, along with obtaining any such written definitions and profiles will provide a needed start toward a shared understanding by staff and the Board of Commissioners,” Folks said. 

Reetz stated during the meeting that, “I’m glad I did find out what I did about this person,” alluding to lawsuits Folks had allegedly filed against former employers, though there was debate among the commissioners as to whether this was true. 

“Well, I would like to see substantiated proof of that,” Scott said. “I saw no proof of any suit.” 

Folks formerly served as administrator in Cass County for two and a half years. According to a Jan. 12, 2019, article published by the South Bend Tribune, Folks resigned her position in the face of possible termination by the Cass County Board of Commissioners. Cass County Commissioner Robert Benjamin was reportedly prepared to present a motion for her termination prior to her resignation, citing complaints by employees regarding a “toxic culture” and “morale issues.” 

Scott said he had been informed that Folks filed a lawsuit against the Cass County Board of Commissioners, and that he contacted two of the Cass County commissioners who refuted that claim. He also stated he asked Folks directly if she had filed lawsuits against former employers, and she said she had not. 

David told the Herald she was unable to substantiate claims of alleged lawsuits either, stating, “It looked like it was all extremely political and she was put in a lot of difficult positions, but I didn’t find anything concrete.” 

Neubecker said during the meeting that even if Folks had filed lawsuits against former employers, it did not necessarily make her any more or less of a viable candidate.

“I don’t really have any concern over a lawsuit if it’s just,” Neubecker said. “If they did her wrong, then she was within her rights. All I know is she had an absolutely impressive resume for her entire career, and just because of a couple incidents where it looks more political than anything, you’re going to take that over her whole body of work.” 

City of West Branch Mayor Paul Freschette confirmed that Folks previously applied for the West Branch city manager position which was filled by Frank Goodroe, and that he and the city council were aware of her relationships with prior employees through news articles, though he did not state whether that was part of the reasoning for her being passed over as a candidate.

Addressing Scott, Reetz asked whether the board should consider looking for other interim candidates.

“Going forward on this, do you think it would be a good idea just to go forward and hire a permanent one instead of an interim?” Reetz asked.

Scott responded that too much time has passed to look for another interim administrator, and it is time to move on and wait for results from the administrator search by MML. 

“I’m not going to take this any further,” Scott said. “If somebody else wants to, that’s their business.” 

In other business, Neubecker asked the other members of the board whether they should consider contracting legal counsel apart from the prosecutor’s office. He said the cost of representation by the prosecutor’s office is rolled into annual salary, with Schultz receiving $2,000 and Assistant Prosecutor Scott Williams receiving $6,000. 

“I just want to get everyone’s feelings on whether or not we want to reach out and look into bids for our legal representation for the board. I feel like having someone that is separate from the courthouse is a good idea,” Neubecker said. “I’m not pointing fingers or anything, but I just think it’s a good idea to have someone that is separate. That way, we don’t have any conflicts of interest.”

Scott told the Herald there have been conflicts of interest in the past, and the recent issue regarding the interim county administrator “was the straw that broke the camel’s back.” 

David said she is in favor of doing research into the matter, but she said that would be partially dependent upon whether the current money being paid for legal representation could be rescinded. 

“Part of the issue is, once they have that salary, are we able to withdraw that $6,000-$8,000? Is that not what was just said, that you can’t change an elected official’s salary,” David asked. “Scott (Williams) is not an elected official though, so his salary could change.”

Clerk Gary Klacking said he would have to research whether this was the case. 

Reetz said he would be open to considering outside legal counsel as well.

“I’m not opposed to taking a look at it, but it may end up costing us more,” Reetz said.

Comments

Please review our community guidelines before posting

Please keep comments on topic and appropriate for all ages. Remember that people of all ages read our website. Those that are not appropriate will be removed. Please read our full community guidelines before posting.

1 comment on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment
denny

The county has saved money by NOT hiring her. She has lawsuits pending from previous employers. Why would Ogemaw County want to go through that same experience. I believe Prosecutor Schultz did a excellent job in the language protecting the County but was rebuffed when submitted. Shame on the commissioners for not doing their job. The commissioners should do their own administrating and quite trying to get someone else to make a scapegoat. Get a back bone and make the correct and educated decisions.

Wednesday, January 22 | Report this

Copyright © 2020, Sunrise Publishing. Powered by: Creative Circle Advertising Solutions, Inc.