2018-03-01 / Front Page

Divided council suspends clerk, plans special meeting to look at separation

By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff

VILLAGE PRESIDENT Sam Barr scowls and deputy clerk Darlene Friend stares blankly as the Empire Village Council discussed suspension of village Clerk Traci Cruz Tuesday night. VILLAGE PRESIDENT Sam Barr scowls and deputy clerk Darlene Friend stares blankly as the Empire Village Council discussed suspension of village Clerk Traci Cruz Tuesday night. The Empire Village clerk has been suspended and council members may act to remove her from her position.

A divided Village Council has scheduled a special meeting for 4 p.m. Monday, March 19, to consider removing appointed Traci Cruz from the position she has held since November 2014.

The decision came Tuesday after more than four hours of discussion marked by acrimony and bitter infighting.

Village president Sam Barr announced he had suspended Cruz Sunday after finding a “grave many and egregious errors” in the proposed budget, which had to be adopted prior to the end of the month. Today marks the first day of fiscal year 2018-19 for the village.

“I’m frustrated about the many hours put into the budget. The numbers should have been updated,” Barr said.

Budget preparations are the most recent clash of among council members and Cruz over the past several months.

Trustees have raised questions about the accuracy and completeness of village financial statements. However, Cruz said she has been hampered in part by accounting issues that pre-date her employment with the village.

“No audit adjustments were made since 2014,” said Ginney Deisler, an accountant who was hired in January to help Cruz update village records and convert books into a QuickBooks program. “It takes some time to straighten this out. We’ve been at it less than a month.”

Tempers have flared over the past few months at council meetings. In January bickering resulted in a five-minute recess to allow council members and Cruz to cool off.

Tuesday’s meeting was also heated, but this time Cruz was not part of the discussion. She sat in the audience with her attorney, Kelly Lloyd of Swogger, Bruce & Milar Law in Traverse City.

Lloyd objected to the suspension.

“There’s no evidence on the record to suspend (Cruz),” she said.

Some 25 audience members watched council members harangue.

“Don’t you think we’ve tried over and over and over to resolve this?” asked past president Carpenter said. “It makes me sick to my stomach.”

Board members voted 4-3 to support the suspension and set the special meeting date. Voting “no” were trustees Maggie Bacon, Chris Frey and Soni Alysworth.

Bacon clarified her no vote saying that she wasn’t opposed to the action. However, she was opposed to acting on the two issues at once.

In a separate motion, council voted to hire an accountant to perform a “forensic” analysis of village books.

Audience members and village treasurer Grace Ronkaitis cautioned that hiring a “forensic accountant” could cost tens of thousands.

There have been no accusations of fraud against Cruz, who was appointed by the board in November 2016.

Council members approved a resolution in which the at-will clause was removed from her contract, which could complicate matters for the village.

It appears both Cruz and the Village Council have secured legal counsel. A representative of Olson, Bzdok and Howard is scheduled to attend the March 19 special meeting.

Audience comments members urged caution in dealing with Cruz, whose contract runs through 2019.

“You are entering uncharted territory, and … I’m advising to you be absolutely certain you have gained purposeful counsel on the employment matter before you,” village resident Todd Avis said.

He said that public employment can constitute a “property interest” that affords an employee due process and accompanies a reasonable expectation of continued employment.

“To protect the Village of Empire from unnecessary and costly litigation, I once again admonish the Village Council to take the necessary steps to ensure employment law is followed in spirit and in letter,” he said.

Beryl Skrocki ended public comment by saying she was disappointed in the behavior of council members.

“It’s a sad display. The vileness is disgusting,” she said. “If you don’t like your position — resign. We need someone with a positive attitude who can treat people with respect.”

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