Two road commissioners removed, third quitsPublished 9:12pm Thursday, September 20, 2012
ST. JOSEPH — One resigned.
Two others were removed Thursday by the Berrien County Board of Commissioners, leaving the road commission without a quorum to conduct business.
Russell Costanza of Sodus Township was appointed to finish 2012.
“It’s sad to see what has happened,” Costanza said. “There was a board within the board. How it deteriorated to that, I don’t know. I have experience in engineering, road building and dealing with the public. I’ll do what I can to get this board back on its feet. I’ve known Bob Forker, an honest man of character, for over 40 years.”
“The road commission is fractured,” Commissioner Jeanette Leahey of St. Joseph said. “It’s a shame because we have some very good people with a lot of good intentions — employees and road commissioners. Unfortunately, it’s come to this cultural tone of total frustration and hostility. I don’t know how you go forward. There are too many broken pieces. I think you all tried to do your best job.”
From 1:30 until almost 6, commissioners heard from the five-member road board before imposing “profound” change in a unanimous vote to oust Charles Collins and a 9-4 margin removing two-year member Larry Merritt, who won some support back through a combination of candid comments and his appointment ending in December.
Three road commissioners indicated allegations surprised them.
“You would have felt the same sting we did when we saw that letter and that group of people entering our room,” Merritt said. “It was not forewarned in any way.”
Kept were Forker and James Daniel, who felt excluded from communications.
Collins, who requested a closed session, Merritt and Louis Gibson abruptly ousted Forker as chairman Sept. 12, though the brouhaha brewing over a hostile work environment percolated for months before spilling into public view in June with 20 allegations by 13 non-union employees against three of the four management team members, Rhonda Hildebrand, Dave Fritz and Kevin Reed.
Commissioner Mac Elliott, administration committee chairman, said road commissioners provided the county board Aug. 29 with a summary of a confidential investigation to “whitewash” and cover up findings by Char Wenham to maintain the status quo.
Commissioners voted to fold her 23-page report into the Sept. 20 record because the public pays the bills. Elliott said it lays out in “breathtaking detail” the need for disciplinary action by focus on “insulating certain managerial positions from the consequences of their misconduct. There’s a pall over the organization. Trust has been destroyed.”
Wenham found “a negative culture where negative management behavior sets the tone for the organization.”
Merritt qualified Wenham’s report as accurate “as far as it went.”
Chairman Dave Pagel, who voted to retain Merritt along with Jon Hinkelman, Debra Panozzo and Robert Wooley, said he “expected more black and white and less gray.
I see more good intentions than I thought” by road commissioners.
Pagel appointed Bryan Bixby as liaison to the road commission until November, when he becomes Berrien Township supervisor.
Commissioner Andy Vavra of Three Oaks said, “I’m disappointed in its direction, loss of team spirit and consensus. I don’t think it can be readily fixed without changes to put it in a different direction.”
Niles Commissioner John LaMore said, “I don’t see any direct outright malice, but they’re hamstrung by being autonomous when it comes to transparency. Things piled up. There will be repercussions on both sides of the fence. It’s not one sided. A fix is going to affect the entire operation — not just a couple of people. We have too much at stake here with the public road system in this county. The road commission has done an exemplary job with cutbacks they’ve had thanks to guys and gals in the field.
“I feel terrible to be in this position because there are many things to commend.”