Leelanau News and Events

County Will Move Forward With Training Of New Finance Department Without Clerk’s Direct Supervision

By Emily Tyra | Oct. 24, 2022

At a special meeting Friday — after Chairman Ty Wessell paused an emotional, unresolved discussion Wednesday — Leelanau County Board of Commissioners gave County Administrator Chet Janik unanimous approval to implement his proposal designed to give the newly established finance department the training it needs.

Finance Director Jared Prince and two department accountants are approximately three months into the position without formal training on the ins-and-outs of government accounting.

The department was created in October 2021 at the annual meeting of the Board of Commissioners where they passed a resolution “authorizing the creation and hiring of a human resources director and finance director positions reporting to the county administrator.”

The finance, payroll, and human resources duties had previously been held by the office of County Clerk Michelle Crocker, who has been in the clerk’s office for 42 years.

This shift in duties was precipitated by an unexpected May 2021 motion from Commissioner Rick Robbins, who presented a reorganization proposal to the board. Janik notes he had not heard of Robbins’ proposal before that May 2021 meeting, at which a then 4-3 Republican majority voted in favor of the changes.

Since October’s resolution, there have been many obstacles to the successful transfer of duties and long-term knowledge from the clerk’s office to the new finance department.

Based on the council of Grand Traverse County’s finance director and Leelanau County’s chief auditor, Janik says he expected a ‘steep learning curve with numerous bumps in the road’ for the person in the position.

But what he did not anticipate: That it would also bring “the most controversy I’ve dealt with in my ten years here.”

A series of “unfortunate and unexpected events” have plagued the transition over the last ten months, says Janik. Three people have served as finance director in that time. Two veteran accounting clerks abruptly departed, accepting new opportunities within the county treasurer’s office. “This led to the hiring in July of two capable but inexperienced replacement accounting clerks,” says Janik, noting “a big difference between government accounting and private business accounting.” He says that the new clerks and Prince have the proper professional credentials and work ethic to be successful in the position. “They just need to know how to get from “a to b to c.”

But there is more to the controversy that has been festering.

At Friday’s special meeting, Prince voiced, “We have been thrown into this situation…with roadblocks set up all along the way. Things like deadlines, reporting, various funds — we can’t ask about things we don’t know exist.”

Commenting on payroll errors coming from his department, which the clerk’s office has flagged, “If errors are even brought to my attention…I am the last person to find out, the auditors, board members, the newspaper are already notified before they come to me. This is not a professional work environment. It’s borderline toxic,” he says. “Too many employees refuse to even have a working relationship together and some can’t stand speaking or being in the same room.”

Last month Janik proposed a series of goals and benchmarks for getting the finance department up to speed. It called on Crocker, her Chief Deputy Clerk Jennifer Zywicki and Deputy Clerk Cathy Hartesvelt — the keepers of much of this institutional knowledge — to oversee the finance department during a training period, until at least March 1, 2023.

During public comment at both Wednesday and Friday meetings — and behind closed doors with Chairman Ty Wessell last Thursday — over 35 county employees said they did not support returning the oversight of the county finances to the clerk’s office.

Janik also stated that once the resolution was passed in October of 2021, “Staff may have felt more empowered. Comments came from the majority of department heads and elected officials at that time, which surprised me. Nearly everyone was in favor of creating these two new departments. No one told me that prior to that.”

County Planner Trudy Galla is among those in support of the two new offices. She tells the Leelanau Ticker, "A private business with an annual budget well over $10 million would most assuredly have separate departments to handle these tasks," adding, "Change is hard for all of us and it will take some time."

The county auditor, the clerk, the treasurer, and finance director agreed to the goals and benchmarks Janik proposed for the training, but Crocker informed him that she had specific conditions if she and her staff will be involved in the oversight, review and training of the finance director and accounting staff.

A motion was on the floor Wednesday to accept Crocker’s proposal to the board, which outlined what needed to be in place for her participation in the plan: That the finance director temporarily report to and be under the direct supervision of the clerk; that Leelanau County would pay for any legal costs for the county clerk and her office; and a weekly stipend of $250 per person be paid weekly to the county clerk and the chief deputy clerk for the duration of the training.

At Wednesday’s meeting Treasurer John Gallagher presented his own detailed plan on how to “provide an environment for learning and collaboration while improving systems of the finance department.” (Janik’s goals and benchmarks, Crocker’s proposal/conditions, and Gallagher’s plan can be viewed here.) 

Crocker also shared — at the request of the commissioners — examples of the kinds of accounting and payroll errors made by the new finance department.

Crocker stated, “It’s not about the mistakes, it’s about containing the mistakes before they leave the office.” Referencing a stack of marked documents she bought into the boardroom, “all of these, at the recommendation of the auditor, need to be looked at.”

Prince said of Crocker’s stipulation, “Again, we have been willing to work with everyone but not for them.”

He added, “I thought it was really odd that in my first weeks here so many people stopped me in the hall to tell me they were happy I was here. I am an accountant…nobody likes to see us around. Little did I know it didn’t have to do with the financials. Employees here have been afraid to come forward and say anything for fear of retaliation.”

During public comment Friday, Northport’s Mike McMillan, who is running against Wessell for the District 4 commissioner seat, praised his opponent for “pumping the breaks” Wednesday and inviting employees to provide him direct feedback in private.

Administrative Deputy Clerk Alison Middleton stepped away from her clerk's desk Friday and commented, “for these employees who entered in a less-than-ideal situation, this was…not only avoidable but was executed by the board of the commissioners and the administrator in a reckless manner.” Noting her opinion “might not be a popular one,” she said the best direction now was “under the clerk and the staff who can instill the knowledge.”

Robbins said, “This all started on May 11 of 2021…when I started this, I knew it would probably mean one term for me, but I did it for you employees. Some of you trusted me. And it took a lot of work to get trust from you. Twenty-four hours ago, I was so damn proud of you people, and proud of Mr. Wessell who took the time and had the integrity to listen to every one of you.”

He also stated, “[Crocker] has given us a letter of demands.”

Not all commissioners were ready to decline Crocker’s asks.

Commissioner Patricia Soutas-Little maintained that based on her conversations with Crocker, “the clerk’s intent is to provide best practice training, it’s not to usurp authority or to in any way eliminate the department. A lot of this is coming from rumors flying around…creating considerable angst among all of you. Rumors about firing staff, eliminating departments, putting things back under the clerk’s authority, that the clerk doesn’t get along with people, the clerk has too much power…”

Commissioner Gwenne Allgaier added, “The way this was addressed in May 2021 was reprehensible and not the way you make change…don’t rip someone’s job apart when someone’s out of town, it sets it up to fail.” 

“The clerk didn’t ask for this,” noted Soutas-Little. “We asked her what it would it take to agree after all this transpired in order for you to provide training. She responded with that proposal.”

Meanwhile Commissioner Debra Rushton echoed public comments made by Galla and those contained in a letter from Laurie LaCross from the Leelanau County Office of the Prosecutor. “Many employees have stepped up to plate, trained, and taken on other duties from other offices, and never been paid a stipend.”

Commissioner Melinda Lautner said simply, “we have heard a lot [from employees] and we have to listen.”

The motion to accept Crocker’s proposal was removed. Lautner moved — and Rushton supported — to endorse the plan presented by Janik and to encourage the administrator in implementing the training. It passed unanimously.

But as the clerk’s conditions will not be met, Janik will be seeking the assistance of another CPA or professional consultant, “to help Jared get the proper training he needs.” Starting Monday, he intends to contact individuals he called upon while seeking an interim finance director.  

Janik will “ask the clerk to join us too. It doesn’t have to be us-versus-them. The clerk’s office and Jared have worked together to finalize a budget. It’s possible.”

He said, “We are a house divided and we need to put an end to it. I ask us all to appeal to the higher angels of our nature and take the high road.”

Robbins added, “It’s time to heal and move forward.”

Janik tells the Leelanau Ticker that today, “I am hoping to meet with the finance director, our auditor, our clerk, and our treasurer to start implementing the training. Hopefully we can work together.”

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