Berrien County Road Department director on administrative leave, commissioners appoint interim director

BERRIEN COUNTY – The Berrien County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mac Elliot acknowledged Thursday that the director of the Berrien County Road Department, Jason Latham, had been placed on administrative leave one week ago.

The reason for Latham’s leave is currently unknown.

“The county administrator is currently reviewing the situation,” Elliot said. “Out of respect for Mr. Latham’s privacy, and our policies and procedures, neither the board nor the administrator can comment on any of this at this time.”

Elliot said a resolution had been passed to approve the hiring Neil Coulston as interim director of the BCRD at this time.

“Mr. Coulston has extensive public works experience, along with other service in the public sector,” Elliot said. “I’m confident that he is well qualified to serve as interim road director until the administrative review is completed.”

Elliot said township partners have “our commitment” that the BCRD will continue to provide support and service through the process.

Multiple letters were read out loud at the meeting by Annette Christie, Berrien County executive assistant to the administrator. Some of the letters came from representatives from the BCRD, as well as those in township leadership roles.

A letter from Hagar Township Supervisor Izzy DiMaggio said Latham was a “first class person.”

“[Latham] bought a professionalism to the position that was sorely lacking,” DiMaggio said.

In the letter, DiMaggio also said that, as supervisor for 11 years in Hagar Township, he had felt the township had a very supportive relationship with Latham.

Based on what he had seen reported in the media, DiMaggio felt the county commissioners were “micromanaging” Latham when members asked about snow scraper blade pressure on the roads as well as training for subdivisions in a Jan. 28 meeting.

“I strongly request you rethink this administrative leave,” DiMaggio’s letter said.

Lincoln Charter Township’s supervisor Dick Stauffer also submitted a letter to be read out loud at the meeting. Stauffer’s letter said he felt the BCRD had been well managed from his perspective.

The Benton Charter Township Treasurer Debbie Boothby said the situation with Latham being placed on administrative leave was cause for “great concern” in the community.

“I respectfully ask that local municipalities be able to voice our very real concerns regarding the potential dismissal of Mr. Latham,” Boothby said. “The relationship over the years that has been fostered is much too important to not be considered.”

A letter signed by “various employees of the road department,” according to Christie, was submitted by Kari Bennett, finance director of the BCRD.

“Under [Latham’s] leadership, the Berrien County Road Department has been recognized for a multitude of accomplishments,” Bennett said.

Bennett listed six recognitions between 2018 and 2019, when Latham stepped into the role of director.

“Under [Latham’s] leadership, we feel stability that has not been experienced in many years,” Bennett said.

Three more letters from the public expressed support for Latham in the position of director, with one supporting his removal.

Tony Benhart, of Sodus Township, said the change of director was “overdue.”

“The road department should not be political in any way,” Benhart said.

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