Council moves for county prosecutor, circuit court to assess Mitchell Conner situation

Published 9:57 am Thursday, December 13, 2018

CASSOPOLIS — Mitchell Conner is an active, voting member of the Cassopolis Village Council, but his election remains in dispute.

On Monday, the village council brought Conner’s contested election to the table for discussion, while Conner was sitting in his council seat. Conner was narrowly elected to council in the November election, but his new full-time employment with the Cassopolis DPW appeared, to some, to be a conflict of interest, and in direct violation of village charter.

Cassopolis village manager, Emilie Sarratore contacted the city’s attorney, Nancy Mullet, to provide an opinion on the situation with Conner. Mullet submitted a written opinion to Sarratore, who shared it with the council, but the council was unconvinced of the opinion by the Monday, Nov. 26 council workshop meeting. Mullet’s opinion was that it was ultimately the decision of the council if Conner could retain his council seat while being a full-time employee for the village. The council agreed it wanted to hear directly from Mullet.

“You can’t take a portion of a statute and reach a conclusion that can be supported unless you consider it against the rest of the statutes,” Mullet said.

Mullet’s opening statements about statutes were indicative of how she would expound on her original written opinion. She reiterated to the council that they could parse out various clauses from neighboring townships, and even state laws, that prevent the election of city council members who could find themselves in conflict with decisions related to their full-time employment with the city, but such clauses have to be compared to legal exceptions, amendments and the body of legal precedent in order to be valid.

On Monday, Mullet referred first to Michigan’s Incompatible Public Offices Act of 1978, and expounded on much of her opinion from there, briefly pointing the council to rules pertaining to city population, various cases of exceptions, amendments and examples of municipalities that allowed city employees to hold elected offices.

She also attempted to clarify to the council the difference between a “conflict of interest,” a scenario in which many elected officials find themselves regardless of their employment, and a “breach of duty,” a scenario in which an elected official’s decision making directly influences his or her employment. Mullet noted that Conner could come into a breach of duty with some decisions, such as an upcoming contract negotiation for the DPW, but in such a case he could, as many elected officials do, recuse himself until after the negotiation.

“Any one of you, including Mr. Conner, could, throughout the course of your tenure as a council member, have a conflict of interest over a matter in front of you,” Mullet said.

“A breach of duty… cannot be waived,” she went on to say.

The expounded opinion did little to sway some members of the council.

“When I came on this council, I was given this book,” said councilwoman Geraldine Sims, holding up her copy of the village charter. “The book says one thing. If what I think it says is not right, then it should be changed.”

Sims has been vocal about her skepticism of Conner’s election to council in light of his employment with the village.

The council voted on the recommended motion for the “Approval of Mitchell Conner to keep his current position as a Department of Public Works employee with the Village of Cassopolis pursuant to MCL 15. 182 and MCL 15.183.” The vote was split, three nays and three yays, meaning the motion did not pass.

Mullet then offered another temporary solution to take the issue to the county prosecutor, who could ask the circuit court for declaratory judgment. The council voted unanimously for the motion to pass the issue on to the county prosecutor and circuit court. Until a circuit court ruling, Conner retains both his employment with the DPW and his council seat.