By Benjamin Gohs
Larry Sullivan will not have to pay the legal fees incurred surrounding his decision to run for, win, then decline the Charlevoix City Clerk’s office while holding his position as the District 6 Charlevoix County Commissioner.
The matter was settled by the county’s legal counsel Bryan Graham during the Charlevoix County Board of Commissioner’s Wednesday Feb. 12 meeting.
“I wrote a memo, both to the city (Charlevoix) and to the county on the legal fees that were associated with the Incompatibility of Offices Act,” Graham said. “It was my understanding that, at the time, this board approved sharing those costs with the city—and encompassed the entire issue dealing with the incompatibility of offices.”
Graham broke the fees into three categories: the initial opinion, a supplemental opinion, and responses to Sullivan’s challenges to the supplemental opinion.
Charlevoix County Board Chairman Joel Evans (R-District 4) asked about the total amount of legal fees owed in the matter.
The cost of legal fees in the first category is $1,609.50.
The cost of legal fees for the second category is $580.
And the cost of legal fees for the third category is $449.50.
Charlevoix County Fiscal Officer and Clerk Cherie Browe asked for a clarification on Graham’s statement about new information having been introduced during the investigation period of the matter.
“When you said ‘new information’ I was confused on that as, prior to your August (2013) opinion, you and I went over, at great length, of the responsibilities of elections between my office and the city and it was determined that there was no conflict,” Browe said. “I didn’t know what other information you had since we had gone over it at great length.”
Graham said, in the opinion he wrote on Oct. 17, 2013, those differences were outlined.
“But we had gone over those in July,” Browe said, to which Graham replied, “Yes and no.”
Graham said it was not clear who owned the election equipment.
“I’m happy, as a compromise, to eliminate the charges for the second one,” Graham said. “But, in terms of the first one, I think that clearly was within the realm of authorization. And, the third category was a direct response to a challenge to our opinion.”
Browe said the county’s portion of the first opinion has been paid. Browe said the fees for the second opinion were paid before she even saw the bill.
“I went back through all the minutes. I did not see anything in the minutes that authorized that further research in October and December (2013),” Browe said. “Again, it is totally your choice. Had I seen that I probably would have deducted those fees from the bill.”
It was decided that it cost the county $2,436 in legal fees in the matter.
Evans asked if that included the nearly $865 the county already paid.
“It is. But, like I told you, I couldn’t find anything in the minutes where the authorization was given where we would be paying the City (of Charlevoix) attorney’s time,” Browe said. “The motion that was passed in July does not indicate that.”
Evans voiced concerns that the county is stuck with a more than $3,000 bill just to determine whether a commissioner could also serve as a city clerk when they received an opinion at no cost from the Michigan Attorney General’s Office.
“It’s a little bit frustrating, in my position, with the taxpayers money, when we get a legal opinion on an issue and spend $3,000 bucks when we really didn’t have to,” Evans said.
Charlevoix County Commissioner Chris Christensen (R-District 2) said the county asked for an initial opinion in July and agreed to pay for half of that. And, that after it received the opinion, that should have been the end of the matter.
He said the county should not be responsible for the City of Charlevoix’s decision to seek further opinions on the matter.
“As far as I’m concerned, as far as the third thing here, this would imply from the way it’s written—and correct me if I’m wrong—but in Bryan’s memo it says … ‘Mr. Sullivan challenged our conclusions.” Well, Mr. Sullivan, acting independently of this county board, should not be able to incur cost on the county by challenging the opinion of Mr. Graham,” Christensen said. “Therefore it would be my assumption that Mr. Sullivan would have to assume the rights for the third charge in this if that’s how it’s going to be broken down.”
He added, “We never had a further discussion in regards to whether or not we were going to seek a second opinion.”
Charlevoix County Commissioner Rich Gillespie (R-District 5) said he feels the legal fees are owed by Sullivan.
“It’s a shame it came to this point,” Gillespie said.
Charlevoix County Commissioner Ron Reinhardt said it was his understanding the county would pay for the first opinion but not the subsequent charges.
Charlevoix County Commissioner George T. Lasater said this is Sullivan’s issue and asked if Sullivan has any responsibility to help pay the bill.
Evans said there was no question that the county would take care of its responsibilities but that the county has paid its fair share with the nearly $865 in fees.
Graham said Sullivan has no legal obligation to pay the fees.
The county commission determined that it would pay $754 more with a vote of 4-2. Gillespie and Lasater voth voted “no.”
Sullivan commented on the matter toward the end of the discussion, saying he approached Graham early in the matter in May of 2013 and asked if the issue should be looked into.
“I did indicate that I was seeking an attorney general’s opinion,” Sullivan said, adding that Graham indicated then there was no reason for Graham to investigate the matter because a higher power would be looking into the issue and issuing an opinion.
“Other than that preliminary discussion with Bryan, in May, I never had any discussions regarding the city or the county developing a legal opinion on this, or research on this,” Sullivan said.
He added that he should have abstained at the meeting last summer where the county board decided to have its legal counsel investigate the matter, and apologized for not abstaining.