State law requires new Calhoun County commissioner to give up job with better pay and benefits

Posted at 11:39 PM, Jan 03, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-04 07:55:57-05

MARSHALL, Mich. -- In what is usually a celebratory occasion, the swearing-in of members of the new Calhoun County Board of Commissioners marked a major sacrifice for one newly elected commissioner.

Tommy Miller has worked for the Calhoun County Road Department for nearly 15 years and had to choose between leaving his job and serving as a county commissioner.

Miller says he did not think holding both offices would be an issue.

“When I first started running, I honestly believed that I could do both positions, and I found out later on I could not," Miller tells FOX 17.

According to Michigan state law, a situation like Miller's made him incompatible for public office.

“Essentially what the law is saying is you cannot hold this office if you hold this other office because they, one supervises the other," says James Dyer, Calhoun County corporation counsel.

Miller will now make less than $12,000 annually, which is less than half of his $21 per hour wage at the road department.

“In 15 years, he’s dedicated his life to the road department, and he cares deeply about the county," says David Face, the chief union representative for Calhoun County Road Department and Teamsters Local 214.

During his swearing-in on Thursday at the Calhoun County Building, dozens of Miller's former coworkers from the road department were in the audience. Many gave him a standing ovation when he took his oath while still upset that Miller had to sacrifice his status if he returns to the department after his service as county commissioner.

Dyer notified Miller of the state law by phone on August 8 and by letter on August 24. He notified Miller again on December 10, after Miller won his election. On December 20, the county received a memorandum of agreement by and between the Calhoun County Road Department and Teamsters Local 214 appealing that the county grant Miller a leave of absence while Miller serves as a county commissioner. The agreement stated Miller would be entitled to his current earned levels of benefits and income.

According to another Michigan state law, a person in Miller's situation may file for a leave of absence. However, Dyer says the conditions of Miller's agreement did not go far enough to prove that his interests in the road department would not influence his work as a commissioner.

“He would hold the status of being an employee, even with the leave of absence," Dyer says. “He would have continued as an employee, and that just can’t be permitted.”

Dyer says Miller would have retained rights with the road department, which he says they could not allow to happen. However, Dyer did not make the final decision to decline the request; he informed the county's attorney, Peter H. Peterson from Miller Johnson Attorneys in Grand Rapids, who notified Miller of the final decision on December 28.

According to Miller and union representative Face, the decision felt like a personal one rather than one of genuine interest in the integrity of the board of commissioners.

“I heard a lot of rumors that they thought I was gonna back out at the last minute so they could put somebody else in that position," Miller says.

Dyer says that is simply not accurate, that he is obligated to by the oath he took for his own office to follow the law.

“Mr. Miller’s my county commissioner," Dyer says. "I just shook his hand and congratulated him for his election, so I just don’t see that’s the case.”

Miller says his decision to take the lower pay and cuts in benefits to serve as county commissioner arose out of his desire to serve and fulfill his responsibility to the voters who elected him.