HARRISON – The May 17 meeting of the Clare County Board of Commissioners once again saw the county’s prosecuting attorney struggle to achieve an office attorney staffing level adequate to the caseload numbers it handles. This saga of effort and knockdown has been ongoing, and this year’s efforts have followed the pattern.
Beginning with the March meeting of the BOC Committee of the Whole, Clare County Prosecutor Michelle Ambrozaitis brought forth a proposed contract with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services which would provide for reimbursement of costs for prosecutions on behalf of MDHHS in child protective proceedings. Ambrozaitis made it clear that, by statute, her office is required to represent them, and can be court ordered to do so if a private attorney is not retained to do so.
She had gone into detail on the county’s history of dealing with MDHHS, including the time the county had worked with that agency without the benefit of a contract, adding that when she was elected as Clare County Prosecutor, her office continued that no-contract representation. Later on, a movement across the state led to MDHHS contracting with prosecutors’ offices and money would flow back into the county, reimbursing for some of the work done on behalf of MDHHS. Ambrozaitis’s office had signed on to that contract in 2009 and had remained so until May 2019 when DHHS chose to go with private attorneys. She also said when the contract left in favor of private attorneys, it coincided with a turnover of the local MDHHS director in late 2017, and the new director had come to her saying MDHHS wanted her office back, as it is appropriate for the prosecutor’s office to handle these cases.
Ambrozaitis noted the assistant prosecutor position had been vacant since March 2020 as commissioners had chosen, for financial reasons, not to refill it. She said the current four attorneys were willing to take on some of the MDHHS work, but caseloads would not permit more. For that reason, Ambrozaitis said full prosecution on behalf of MDHHS would require the filling of the vacant prosecutor position.
The prosecutor also emphasized the value of having an in-house prosecutor who is aware of both Multi-Disciplinary Team evidence in an MDHHS case and an associated criminal case.
Ambrozaitis then described the initial MDHHS offering of $40,000 reimbursement, which she had declined as not fair, because of the three civil attorneys MDHHS had been using two had contracts around $80,000 and the previous 5-year contract with Clare County had been for $80,000 a year. That led to a request that MDHHS sharpen its pencil and get back to her. It did, to the tune of $80,000 for the remainder of the county’s fiscal year, with renewal at $100,000 for the next fiscal year.
Commissioners agreed to put the MDHHS/Clare County Prosecutor’s Office contract on the March 15 BOC agenda for approval.
Ambrozaitis also explained that a Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan caseload study had determined that, based on caseload standards, her office which has four attorneys should be staffed with seven attorneys. That meant the current four attorneys were/are doing the work of seven, and that regardless of the board’s choice about the contract, another attorney was needed – and that taking on the additional MDHHS cases would absolutely require another attorney.
Commissioner Jack Kleinhardt asked what advantage would Clare County or the prosecutor have by taking on that contract, adding his reasons for being cautious about taking it on again with the same people who had “pulled the plug” previously, leaving the county “with a big hole in the budget.” Commissioner Rick Fancon also had questioned the lack of a strictly guaranteed contract, as it contained an opt-out clause [for both parties].
It would seem to have been an easy choice, as the contract would bring in up to $80,000 [based on work billed] for the remainder of the current fiscal year, then renew at $100,000. It was proposed the additional attorney be hired in at $65,000 plus benefits: well within the anticipated billing inflow.
BOC Chair Jeff Haskell was absent from the March 15 meeting, and ultimately, the commissioners’ vote was split 4:4 and the motion did not pass. Dale Majewski, who had voted for the motion based on its being a benefit for children, explained that with a tie vote, the rules dictate the motion fails.
That study only took into account adult and juvenile averages, and didn’t include personal protection caseload, mental competency hearing caseload, forfeiture cases, specialty courts, the multi-disciplinary team used in child sexual assault/abuse, child support cases, abuse/neglect cases, other cases such as expungement, and appeals. So, the baseline time comparisons were exceedingly conservative, and still the attorney numbers came up short of what the study found was required to prosecute Clare County’s caseload.
The prosecutor also spoke of comments from the BOC stating her office has more attorneys than her predecessor had. She explained that was 14 years prior, and time demands had grown with increased technology. That includes more patrol cameras to be watched; four vehicle cameras with every Michigan State Police investigation; body-worn camera footage to be reviewed; new/better and more complex DNA technology; cell phone extraction and digital evidence which can be voluminous. She said ethical standards are also higher, assuring prosecutors are seeking justice and making appropriate charging decision.
Ambrozaitis said she understood that budget-wise hiring three additional attorneys was not feasible for Clare County, but that hiring one would get her office closer to where it needs to be in order to effectively prosecute cases on behalf of the people it serves.
Haskell acquiesced to Gilmore’s demand and a new motion was made to disallow sustaining the ruling of the chairperson to allow placement on the agenda of a motion to allow the reconsidering of the motion of March 15, 2023, to “approve the contract presented in the Committee of the Whole between the Prosecutor’s Office and the State of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in the amount of $80,000 through the remainder of this fiscal year at which time it will be renewed at a rate of $100,000.”
That motion received two yes votes and six no votes, including previously yes-voting Dale Majewski. Previous yes voter Samantha Pitchford was absent.
Ambrozaitis then enumerated caseload statistics and other office obligations, as well as the fact there remains the legal obligation for her office to handle the MDHHS cases, which would now be done “for free.” She then said she would see the commissioners the next month to talk about the need for another attorney.
Ironically, the vote to prevent a motion allowing the reconsideration of the MDHHS contract motion [which would serve to represent victims of abuse/neglect in the county] was followed by approval of a resolution declaring April 23-29 as Victim’s Rights Week in Clare County.
“From Jan. 1, 2023 to May 16, 2023: 329 new cases were charged. Of the cases that came in for review during that time frame, 70 were declined. Of the cases that came in for review during that time frame, 80 were still under review. The types of crimes related to the cases still under review are: Criminal Sexual Conduct, Child Abuse, Weapons, Sex Offender Registry Violations, Controlled Substance Offenses, Arson, Assault and Battery, Domestic Violence, Moving Violation Causing Death, Embezzlement, DNR violations, Assault Great Bodily Harm/Strangulation.
“Of the cases that came in for review prior to Jan 2, 2023, 43 of those cases were reviewed and denied. There are currently 746 open and active adult and juvenile criminal cases pending within the court system. (Remember this is only the criminal cases; this doesn’t include Personal Protection Orders, Mental Commitments and Child Support cases that we also handle. It also does not include the new child protective cases we have received.)
“Since the beginning of the year, attorneys have attended: 2,065 circuit court hearings; 945 district court hearings; 128 family court hearings.
“Since the April 19, 2023, Board of Commissioners meeting, we have substituted in as DHHS attorney on four child protective cases. From May 1, 2023 to May 16, 2023 we put in a total of 72.42 hours on those four cases. There were 12 workdays during that period with a total of 90 work hours; 72.42 of those hours were spent on reviewing and preparing these cases for court. That leaves 17.58 regular hours to attend to our other cases, court hearings, etc. Obviously, attorneys worked after normal business hours to ensure that these cases were prepared for court.
“Had we been able to bill for our time during those 12 workdays, the county would have been reimbursed $3,168.37 from the state. Instead, we worked for free and we worked on our own time. Thank you.”
Later on in the meeting, after the motion to hire a new attorney was read and seconded, Commissioner Majewski asked why the motion for approving the hiring of an additional attorney was on the agenda when it had been agreed that proposed motions would be discussed at Committee of the Whole meetings, where it would be determined if the motion would move forward to the BOC agenda. Administrator Lori Phelps said the motion had been presented after the Committee of the Whole meeting, so she had chosen to include it on the agenda. Chairman Haskell then noted that the opinion also had been that an elected official should be able to put an item on the agenda.
“And I’m good with that,” Haskell said, adding that he wanted to discuss some about it himself. “We had just voted down a $100,000 contract with an attorney, and this is put right back on there. Which, in my opinion, I think that should’ve had some more discussion also. Do we need to form a committee to see actually see what Michelle is going through … why there’s so many cases of backlog, and maybe have them report and form an opinion?”
Commissioner Rickie Fancon then said he though Haskell was on to something.
“We hear that you need an attorney, but there’s no justification for an attorney,” he said. “We need to sit down and justify having an employee, because there’s no justification in saying ‘this is where I’m at.’ Where were we five years ago? We need justification to say, OK, cases here five years ago was this and we had this many attorneys, now we’re here [and] we have this many attorneys … If we’re going to do this right, we have to justify the position.”
Haskell restated his concern the motion would likely be voted down without any thought. “My thought is why would this go through when we could’ve had $100,000 and another attorney?”
Ambrozaitis then asked what additional justification was needed?
“I’ve provided you with a case study report conducted by the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan which we participated in,” she said, directly to Fancon. “I reported repeatedly to the board case numbers and statistics. I have repeatedly discussed this over the years, since you becoming commissioner, prior to you being commissioner. And I have repeatedly requested for commissioners to come to my office and talk to me, to ask me questions about my position, what my office does. And only one of you has shown up at my office. I saw Dale when he first got on the board when he came in to talk to me about my performance review of the administrator. You [Fancon] came into my office once, asked me what I needed, but I felt it was a perfunctory ‘hey, I’m here, I did it’ and I haven’t heard back from you since.
“David [Hoefling] has been there, but nobody else,” she said, adding that when Jim Gelios was commissioner, he had come in to observe a presentation on a paperless system she wanted.
“That is the extent of commissioner involvement in my office, other than me being here in this room,” Ambrozaitis said. “And I talk every time till I’m blue in the face. If you still have questions – I’m right downstairs. Previously, I was down the hall. I have two cell phones, I have a home phone, I have a work phone, I have an email. I’m here and I’m happy to meet with you.”
She then referenced comments received regarding commissioners’ stated reasons for voting down the MDHHS contract.
“Clearly you are still under a very gross misunderstanding of what my office does,” Ambrozaitis said. “So, please help me educate you. Tell me what it is that you need to know, because I have given you, in my estimation, all of the information you need to make a sound, firm, logical and well-reasoned decision on this matter, without further discussion.”
Fancon then said that, in his eyes, she had not, then offered his reason why. That included discounting the study presented and its recommendations, because he wanted documented information.
“This’ll fit anyone who wants to come work for me,” he said. “If you want another associate, you’ve got to come back to me and say ‘this is what we have, this is what we had in previous years, and this is the reason. You’ve got to have documented information before we can make that decision. I’m going to vote for what’s best for this county. You give me that information and you need it, I will vote for. But until I get that information, I will not vote for it.”
He went on to say that information had to show what is different from previous years that shows the need for another attorney.
Ambrozaitis responded by saying her office had five attorneys, but had been at four since March 2020. Fancon then asked what was the data for those years, caseload, defendants, charges.
“Look at the prior meeting minutes, because I’ve done all the work,” she said. “And I really don’t have the time to sit down and read you everything that I’ve done.”
Fancon then snapped back that if she didn’t have time to do the homework, he didn’t have the time to vote for it.
It should be noted here that both Fancon and Kleinhardt were absent from the April 4 Committee of the Whole meeting when the Rand Study data had been presented in great detail, including the timeframe from which data was derived.
Fancon reiterated that if Ambrozaitis did the homework and proved it, he would vote for it. Ambrozaitis responded by saying, “Yeah, I’ve heard that before, too, Mr. Fancon.”
Haskell then called for a roll call vote on the motion which failed 6-to-2, with no commissioner voicing the reasoning for their vote. Commissioner Pitchford was absent.
One question hovering in the background seems to be screaming for attention: What have Clare County taxpayers asked/told their commissioners about the turndown of free money [taxpayer dollars that would be returned to Clare County] enabling providence of legal representation in prosecuting child abuse/neglect cases for their children, their grandchildren, their fellow citizens? Perhaps district resident voices need to be heard.
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