STANTON — The Montcalm County Board of Commissioners have finally found a way to resolve an election programming payment dispute — by removing themselves from the equation entirely.
The issue was hammered out during a nearly three-hour meeting Monday night, which was attended by nearly 50 people, including multiple local clerks.
Cato Township Clerk Louis Morse and Belvidere Township Clerk Sheila Smith addressed commissioners about election programming, presenting them with a petition in support of Clerk Kristen Millard, stating, “This petition signed by the clerks of Montcalm County is requesting that the Board of Commissioners allow the county clerk to program for all elections for $7,000 a year as you have been doing for a number of years.”
The petition was signed by Morse, Smith, Bushnell Township Clerk Louise Belyou, Day Township Clerk Jackie Kemler, Douglass Township Clerk Ronda Snyder, Eureka Township Clerk Linda Ruwersma, Evergreen Township Clerk Kelli Greenhouse, Fairplain Township Clerk Stacie Pribble, Home Township Clerk Cindy Stratton, Montcalm Township Treasurer Carol Rosebrook and Clerk Amy Richards, Pierson Township Clerk Robin Mitchell, Reynolds Township Clerk Robin Sholty, Marilyn McDougall and Curtis Sisson from the village of Sheridan and Winfield Township Clerk Colleen Stebbins.
The disagreement, which has been ongoing since last December, stems from the reluctance of some commissioners to continue paying Millard — as the county has done since 2007 — an additional $7,000 per year for her election programming work. The funds come from the county’s election programming fees billed out to local municipalities. Millard has said her election programming work has generated more than $265,000 in revenue for the county since 2006 and is more cost-effective than if the county hired an outside vendor to do the work.
Millard has argued that election programming is not a statutory duty for county clerks, but that she currently provides the service because commissioners appointed her to do so. Millard and the county have obtained multiple legal opinions in the hopes of resolving the disagreement, but they are conflicted even on those.
On Monday night, commissioners and Millard finally reached an agreement.
In support of county clerk
As Morse and Smith shared their feelings with commissioners, 14 local clerks stood in the audience throughout the presentation in silent support of Millard.
“Kristen has been doing this programming for $7,000 per year,” Morse said. “Now all of a sudden you don’t want to pay her. I don’t know why. She’s been doing a good job. She also, along with the programming, she prints out a test deck for the clerks in the county to use. If you’ve never seen this, you commissioners should come to a public test and see how this works.”
“Kris graciously provides these,” Smith agreed. “If you go to a vendor, these will not be done. You will get a blank document, but every clerk will have to do their own. Kris gives us a lot of support that you won’t get from a vendor. We can give her a call, come down here, within an hour have it taken care of. On election day, Kris is out there within a half hour if we’re having problems. That means a lot to us.”
Local clerks were supportive of Millard, but concerned about the county benefitting from revenue generated from election programming.
“You’ve been making money on us. For you to make a profit on us is wrong, as far as I’m concerned,” Morse said.
Smith suggested placing revenue generated from election programming into a special account and creating a committee of “seasoned” municipal clerks to oversee the funds, which could be used for voting equipment maintenance and improvements.
Cut out the middle man
Millard obtained bids to show commissioners how much it would cost to contract with an outside vendor for election programming. She said last November’s general election alone would have cost the county $30,885.
Commissioner Patrick Q. Carr of Lakeview, who is chairman of the board, clarified for the audience that the issue of paying Millard originally arose when experts currently investigating county finances told county officials they needed to determine whether to pay Millard a wage increase (if they determined election programming is a statutory duty) or a stipend (if they determined election programming wasn’t a statutory duty).
Carr suggested taking the advice of Controller-Administrator Robert Clingenpeel.
“Why don’t we just let the county clerk and the township clerks work out what she’s going to charge them for election and we get out of the middle of it?” Carr proposed. “Part of the group here tonight didn’t like the fact that we’re profiting. It seems like some of the clerks here tonight resent that, some of them say they’re OK with it, they just want you (Millard) to do the work. They can form their own committee with Millard being in charge, and we get out of the animosity of being in the middle of it.
“This group will support you 100 percent,” said Carr as the audience erupted into applause in support of Millard. “I can’t see the downside of that.”
“I can’t either,” Millard agreed.
The question remained of how Millard would be paid for election programming work already done and yet to be done this year. Election paperwork is currently due to the state by April 14.
Carr and Millard argued back and forth on this issue. Commissioner Ron Baker of Howard City suggested a legal arbitrator sort it out, which had the audience groaning in response.
Smith questioned what equipment Millard will use to do election programming if she works as a sort of independent contractor. Carr said Millard can continue to use county equipment as far as he’s concerned.
The question of who would be responsible if a ballot has an error and needs to be reprinted was also debated. Millard said any error would fall back on the county as the county’s Election Commission — comprised of Millard, Treasurer JoAnne Vukin and Probate Judge Charles Simon — is responsible for ballot proofing. Carr didn’t like the idea of the county giving up election programming revenue, but still being on the hook for reprinting ballots due to possible errors.
“We can’t give you guys all the checks and us have the deposit slips,” he protested.
Commissioner John Johansen of Montcalm Township declared that if the county doesn’t take action on this issue, it will fall back on townships as the county has a clear legal opinion. Audience members openly scoffed at this.
Commissioner Betty Kellenberger of Carson City added she heard a recent Carson City-Crystal Area Schools ballot proposal had a mistake on it. She said she didn’t have any additional details.
“When you’re going to throw accusations out there like that, please bring facts with you because I don’t have any information about that,” responded a clearly exasperated Millard, referencing January’s meeting when Kellenberger stated that officials from local municipalities have been telling her this is the first year they’ve been billed by the county for election programming services. This claim turned out to be false.
The lengthy debate came to a conclusion as commissioners voted to remove the county from the election programming process, have Millard independently contract with local municipalities for election programming, have Millard and local clerks create their own committee to oversee this process. The cost of the county having to reprint ballots due to any errors would cost the county the same as the industry standard. Kellenberger voted “no.”
“We’re just going to get out of the way of this whole election thing,” Carr summarized.
“Do you like it?” he asked Millard.
“I can live with it,” Millard replied.
“I’m very humbled by the support I’ve received through our local clerk’s association,” she added. “We have a very strong association and we support each other and we are a great team.”