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Lawsuit alleges Open Meetings Act violations with Shiawassee COVID-19 bonuses

The lawsuit filed on behalf of a resident seeks to stop the payments, claiming legal violations in approving them
Published: Jul. 22, 2021 at 1:50 PM EDT
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SHIAWASSEE COUNTY, Mich. (WJRT) - A lawsuit filed Thursday seeks to invalidate COVID-19 bonuses paid to Shiawassee County officials due to allegations that the Board of Commissioners violated the Open Meetings Act.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of resident Nichole Ruggiero claims a small group of the Shiawassee County Board of Commissioners met in secret to determine amounts of the bonuses paid to elected and appointed officials from American Rescue Plan funding. She alleges those amounts were not disclosed before commissioners voted to approve them.

The lawsuit filed by attorney Phil Ellison of Hemlock also alleges the deliberations on whether to pay the bonuses improperly happened while commissioners were meeting in closed session on July 15. The Open Meetings Act does not allow secret talks on spending tax dollars.

The Shiawassee County Board of Commissioners and commissioners Jeremy Root, Gary Holzhausen, Brandon Marks, Cindy Garber and John Plowman each are named as defendants.

Root, Sheriff Brian BeGole and other top county officials each received $25,000 from the county’s COVID-19 relief funds. Several other officials like two commissioners, the undersheriff, register of deeds, treasurer and clerk each received $10,000.

Most other commissioners and several employees received $5,000 apiece while many of the county’s 257 employees received between $2,500 and $1,000 apiece.

The lawsuit claims commissioners talked in closed session about the bonuses, which Ellison claims should have happened in open session, and they only discussed an average bonus of about $2,148 per employee. Commissioners never received information about how much each person was slated to receive.

The amounts of the bonuses never were discussed or disclosed to the public while commissioners met in open session, the lawsuit says. Ellison claims public officials are not allowed to discuss how to spend tax dollars in closed session.

Ellison is asking the court to invalidate the COVID-19 bonus payments made to top county officials, who received $5,000 or more. The lawsuit is not challenging smaller payments for most county employees.

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