The County Commission for Shiawassee County, Michigan, invited a fierce controversy in the last week over the Commissioners’ decision on July 15 to use federal coronavirus relief funding to pay themselves bonuses designated as “hazard pay.”
The average payout to county employees was $2,100. The commissioners themselves, all Republicans, were awarded much more. Each commissioner is usually paid $10,000 plus stipends each year according to the county’s charter.
The commission’s chairman received $25,000, two commissioners received $10,000, and the four remaining commissioners each got $5,000.
Cindy Garber, one of the commissions given $5,000, stood by her vote to provide herself a bonus. “I think that I earned it. I work hard at this job. I was here in person all through this crazy year,” she told a reporter.
Another commissioner seemed confused about the vote for the awards. “I’m giving the money back. I think one commissioner is giving it to a nonprofit, so those actions indicate that we truly did not know this money was coming to us,” said Commissioner Marlene Webster.
The Covid-19 federal funding was intended to assist small businesses and local governments impacted by the pandemic. According to the Michigan Association of Counties, Shiawassee County was the only county to use the money to pay bonuses to commissioners.
A lawsuit was filed on July 22, challenging the bonus awards and claiming that the commission met in secret to approve the payments in violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act. The lawsuit alleges that the commissioners talked in a closed session about the bonuses to be awarded.
Because Shiawassee County Circuit Judge Matthew Stewart employees received some of the COVID-19 bonuses, the case was transferred to the Circuit Court of Genesee County. The new judge in the case scheduled a hearing on July 26 to determine if the awarded funds should be taken back immediately by court order.
After that hearing was scheduled, conversations between the Shiawassee County Prosecutor, the County Attorney, and the County Administrator on July 23 led to an announcement that all elected officials who received the “hazard pay” bonuses had agreed to pay the money back to the county.
The commission issued a press release stating, “Since the payments were made, confusion about the nature of these funds has run rampant. The commissioners deeply regret that this gesture has been misinterpreted and have unanimously decided to voluntarily return the funds to the county, pending additional guidance from the state of Michigan.”