Judge tells county to retrieve some COVID-19 relief payments

CORUNNA, Mich. (AP) — A Michigan county was ordered Monday to claw back COVID-19 relief payments from some of its workers after a resident challenged the way the federal money was approved by local officials.

It’s the latest development in a controversy over how Republicans who control government in Shiawassee County, population 68,000, handled a windfall from the federal government.

Judge Mark Latchana directed the county to recover any “hazard pay” bonuses that exceeded $5,000, attorney Philip Ellison said.

Ellison argued that county commissioners violated Michigan’s open meeting law by closing a July 15 meeting to discuss the spending before voting, 6-0, in an open session.

If commissioners want to spend the money, they’ll have to vote again, under the judge’s order.

“This injunction sends a very clear message they can’t use secret backroom deals to try to enrich themselves… It goes back to an old line: Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” said Ellison, who sued on behalf of a resident.

Many frontline county employees received $1,000 to $2,000. Ellison said the injunction doesn’t affect them.

But the commissioners, who work part-time, were very generous with themselves and other elected Republicans: Chairman Jeremy Root received $25,000, two commissioners got $10,000, and four more commissioners received $5,000. The sheriff, prosecutor, county administrator and county clerk were also given bonuses.

After days of criticism, commissioners last Friday pledged to return their money, citing a legal opinion from the prosecutor who said the Michigan Constitution bars elected officials from getting additional pay for past work.

“All other elected officials who received these funds have also decided to voluntarily return these funds,” the commissioners said.

In court, Thomas Beindit, a lawyer representing the county, argued there was no open meeting violation when commissioners decided to spend roughly $555,000 on more than 250 employees.

But Commissioner Marlene Webster testified that there was a discussion only about the average size of a bonus.

“There was not a single mention” of pay for commissioners, said Webster, who has returned her money.

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