Leelanau County Commissioners Weigh In On Recent Controversy Around BATA Board Expansion
By Craig Manning | March 15, 2023
With a debate raging in northern Michigan about whether Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA) should be allowed to expand its board of directors, the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners got their chance to weigh in on the matter at an executive board session Tuesday morning. While commissioners did not make a specific motion on the situation, several commissioners did express concern that the change in board structure could dilute Leelanau County’s ability to influence the direction and operation of the local transit authority.
The BATA controversy started at the beginning of this month, when, at a March 1 meeting of the Grand Traverse County Commission, commissioners added a “discussion of BATA board’s recent actions” to their agenda. Brad Jewett, who serves as vice chair of the Grand Traverse County commission – and as one of the four Grand Traverse County appointees to the BATA board – said at that meeting he was frustrated by the actions of two other county BATA board appointees, Chairperson Richard Cochrun and Secretary Robert Fudge. In February, Cochrun and Fudge voted in favor of expanding the BATA board from seven members to nine. That motion passed, and BATA put things in motion to fill the new board positions.
Since 1999, BATA’s board structure has called for four representatives appointed by the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners, two appointed by the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners, and one “at-large” member, selected by the BATA board. When board members voted to expand the board in February, they created two new at-large seats, which BATA’s board will also be responsible for filling.
Jewett characterized the BATA board expansion as a “scheme” that would allow BATA to start “cherry picking” its board members because the transportation authority isn’t happy with certain county appointees. He also argued that Cochrun and Fudge, by supporting the board expansion, had diluted Grand Traverse County’s oversight of BATA expansion. Commission Chair Rob Hentschel agreed, suggesting that BATA’s decision to expand the board was a move “away from accountability” to the taxpayers it is meant to serve.
The Grand Traverse County Commission ultimately voted to charge both Cochrun and Fudge with “willful neglect of duty” and to “consider recalling these appointees for violating their fiduciary duty to the voter.” Cochrun and Fudge were initially advised to be ready to respond to the charges at the commission’s April 5 meeting. But drama heated up further last week, when Grand Traverse County commissioners convened a special meeting to move the Cochrun/Fudge hearing up to March 15.
On Monday (March 13), BATA released a lengthy statement. “With many changes on the way, BATA’s Board believes it’s in the organization’s best interest to select two new at-large members in a timely manner,” the statement read. “This will allow the new members to review BATA’s finances, funding, planning, and processes as these new projects commence.” Changes include the construction of a new BATA operations center in Grand Traverse County, aggressive staff recruitment efforts to meet ridership demand, and more.
One notable point of clarification in the statement had to do with the role that at-large members are meant to serve on the board. Having these types of positions, BATA noted, “provides flexibility and allows the BATA Board to review its overall composition when filling at-large openings and search for the most qualified candidates to fill representation and skillset gaps.” Currently for instance, the BATA board does not include a City of Traverse City resident – a gap that board members would likely seek to fill with one of the new at-large positions.
The release also noted that, since 1996, BATA has had articles of incorporation in place that allow the board to “amend their articles or bylaws at any time with a two-thirds vote.” That process, per BATA, “does not require Grand Traverse or Leelanau County Commission approval.” Before now, the last change to board structure occurred in 1999, when BATA board members voted to replace a model that focused on township representation to the county representation structure that exists today.
Just hours after releasing that statement, BATA sent out another press release informing local media that BATA and the Grand Traverse County Board of Commission had “agreed to a 60-day pause” that will temporarily halt action on both the commission’s efforts to remove Cochrun and Fudge and the BATA board’s “selection and appointment” of new at-large members. “BATA and Grand Traverse County Commissioners have agreed to continue discussions around a mutual agreement regarding the composition of BATA’s Board,” the release stated. “Resolution discussions will include representation from BATA, Grand Traverse County, and Leelanau County.”
While yesterday’s Leelanau County executive board session occurred in the wake of all this action, it still prominently featured discussions about BATA. BATA Executive Director Kelly Dunham and Director of Communications and Development Eric Lingaur were both on hand to give a presentation about the recent goings-on at the transportation authority, and “BATA Board Structure Discussion” was identified as a key agenda item. And while commissioners took no specific action on BATA, some members of the board did express concerns similar to those raised by their counterparts in Grand Traverse County.
“Already we are at a disadvantage in Leelanau, being represented [on the BATA board],” Commissioner Melinda Lautner said. (Leelanau’s current appointees to the BATA board are Jamie Kramer, who is also a county commissioner, and John Sommavilla, who serves as the BATA board’s vice chair.) “With this change…Leelanau County would only be guaranteed two seats of a board of nine. And yet we pay a lot of taxes [for BATA services]. That is my No. 1 concern.”
“The at-large positions represent both counties,” Dunham responded – noting, for instance, that current at-large member Heather Harris-Brady is actually a Leelanau County resident who lives in Empire. Future at-large appointments, she said, could very much include Leelanau residents. “The at-large positions are designed…such that the governance committee can review the current composition of the board – and review where those gaps are – so that they can specifically seek to fill those gaps. So, rider representative, for example, is a gap right now; it’s not always been a gap. City of Traverse City is currently a gap; it’s not always been a gap. It could be that the rider representative comes out of Leelanau County. There’s not a geographical bias against any one area. [The goal] is to be as inclusive as possible of all of the areas.”
Leelanau commissioners ultimately decided to see what develops during the current 60-day pause before making any specific motions or decisions on the matter, though Lautner suggested forming a new committee aimed at determining how Leelanau County can have more input on BATA operations.Comment
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