County Seat Newspaper
of Clare County

Prosecutor’s Office Files Lawsuit Against County Board of Commissioners


HARRISON – Over the past few months, the Clare County Board of Commissioners has heard repeated requests for increased attorney staffing for the Clare County Prosecutor’s Office. Previous Cleaver stories covering the regular monthly BOC meetings as well as the Committee of the Whole meetings chronicled those presentations of data showing need in multiple facets of that office, as determined by a Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan study.

That study included specific hours to conduct/complete specific types of legal duties, procedures, etc. Incorporating all the hours required to conclude each type of case with the number of attorney work hours available, the study showed need for a minimum of 4.97 attorneys: a minimum of one more than was currently employed. Despite this evidence, the Board denied the attorney request.

The BOC has often said that if a department can show a way to fund their request, the commissioners would support it. That is what Prosecutor Michelle Ambrozaitis did when she negotiated a reimbursement contract with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for prosecuting their cases in Clare County – negotiating it up from the DHHS proposed annual cap of $40,000 to the prosecutor’s demand for a $80,000 cap. The Prosecutor’s Office is legally obligated to prosecute those DHHS cases, and the larger contract would have generated enough reimbursement to cover the cost of an additional attorney primarily dedicated to handling them. That saving to the county, ergo its taxpayers, seemed a simple slam dunk, because the unreimbursed expense to the county would essentially entail robbing Prosecutor Peter to not pay Prosecutor Paul – meaning county attorneys would be taken off the county’s existing caseload to work the additional mandated DHHS cases, without the contracted reimbursement.

It bears reminding that the 4.97 [5] attorney minimum did not take into account the additional attorney work to be done for DHHS. Yet, the BOC declined the proposed reimbursement contract with the proposed inclusion of an additional attorney.

In subsequent meetings, Ambrozaitis has recited the many hours of work dedicated to those DHHS cases, noting the total hours and the fraction of time left available for conducting work on the remaining caseload. She also was specific about the multi-thousands of dollars which had not been reimbursable through DHHS, thus hours “worked for free.”

Along with the staffing shortfall, the Board has been made aware that court-appointed attorneys are paid $100 per hour, wherein the prosecuting attorneys are paid just more than $36 per hour; essentially paying more for criminal defense of the accused than it pays to uphold the rights of the victim. That lesser wage also includes duties mandated by law which prosecuting attorneys must perform, i.e., being available 24/7, and working weekends and holidays.

On June 20, all the county commissioners, along with the county administrator, received via email a Letter of Demand for Proper Funding drafted and presented by Grewal Law PLLC, Attorneys at Law. This was the day prior to the June 21 BOC meeting [where the letter was not included under the agenda’s Communications List, and the Board took no action]. Essentially it was ignored. That letter was thus considered denied, and legal action was moved to the next step, which was the June 28 initiation of the “Verified Complaint for Writ of Mandamus and for Declaratory Relief.”

The Letter of Demand, in part, addressed various tasks the prosecutor’s office is mandated by state law to perform, as well as the cutting of a Prosecutor’s Office attorney in March 2020: a position which has remained empty. It acknowledged the BOC had allowed the hiring of a temporary part-time attorney in 2021 and stated that underpaid position had drawn no applicants. The letter also noted the one grant-funded attorney whose funding is expected to terminate in September 2023. That attorney’s primary function is to manage the requirements for the federal grant program and seek additional grants to fund the Prosecutor’s Office.

The letter also draws attention to the attorney shortage as causing an inability for that office to maintain all state-mandated functions, and to the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan study which determined a need for additional full-time staffing.

Additionally, the letter spoke to the 922 criminal cases prosecuted last year, and broke down the time required for processing both misdemeanors and felonies. Using a conservative estimate of 10 hours per case, and the 1,855 hours per attorney per year they would require, it was determined the Clare County Prosecutor’s Office needs a minimum of 4.97 [5] attorneys to handle its workload.

The letter went on to describe the prosecutor’s commitment to serving the county’s residents and her relentless presentation of the aforementioned data to the Board, which has refused to take proper action.

In an interview with The Cleaver, Prosecutor Ambrozaitis said her office’s current caseload included some 596 referrals, 65 under review, 96 declined, 484 charged, and with an overall total of 1,087 open cases as of June 23. She was clear in her office’s obligation to the citizens of the county and their entitlement to receiving justice.

“I think it’s an important issue,” she said. “I don’t like to use cliches, but justice delayed is justice denied. We have up to 80 cases that are pending review, and that’s frustrating for me. Because when we were properly staffed, we were moving them through fairly quickly, and you would only find a hangup on a case if it was more complex or if there was just a lot of information you needed to digest.”

Ambrozaitis said the current situation is much different.

“It’s craziness,” she said. “The reports come in and you watch them stack up … I have all these cases spread out in binders for upcoming trials, that I have to review and prepare my witness and exhibit lists.  I have to determine if there any motions that I need to file. That takes time.”

She acknowledged the last-minute nature of the situation has left the courts frustrated with her office. The prosecutor then likened her office to a radar screen’s rings, with the things in her office being within the final [center] circle.

“We may see the cases one or two circles out, and we know they are coming in,” she said. “But we are in such a position that we are reacting to the things that are right in front of our face. It’s frustrating for me, it’s frustrating for my assistant prosecutors that we can’t be more prepared. So, cases are adjourned so we can have time, but then we receive additional time and think ‘great, that’ll give us the time that we need,’ then all these other things fall in and take precedence.”

Ambrozaitis cited the case of the two GOP ladies fighting at the Doherty Hotel at a party function – a small case that garnered national attention, but on which she has been unable to make a decision.

“It’s low priority to me because it’s a misdemeanor and there were no injuries,” she said. “I have to prioritize my work and, unfortunately, that’s down at the bottom. Felony matters must take precedence, we are triaging our cases.”

Of course, people are still interested in what’s going on with that case, but there also is another file sitting on the prosecutor’s desk on Cuban grow houses where marijuana is illegally grown.

“It’s a file four binders thick with a stack of reports on top of it,” Ambrozaitis said. “It’s not difficult in terms of the charge and what you need to prove, but it’s the volume I have to review. There are five defendants and that requires my time and attention and I just haven’t had time to focus on it.”

Ambrozaitis cited another pending investigation on a really large fraud case concerning a local business as the victim which she said law enforcement has been working really hard on for the last couple months. That has also made its way into the prosecutor’s office, where it is anticipated it could be charged as a continuing criminal enterprise.

“This is a very large case that will require many hours for review and charging.  The last criminal enterprise that was charged took approximately 16 hours just to prepare the charging document.”

Ambrozaitis said she doesn’t believe the commissioners grasp the time and effort that has to go into cases, even the smallest misdemeanor, to prepare the paperwork and review it. She offered the example of Driving While License Suspended which requires one to two hours.

“Which doesn’t sound like a lot,” she said. “But when you [see] we have a high volume of cases, and they all take time, they all take effort. Then law enforcement officers stop into the office: they have search warrants for an investigation, or they have questions about a case – you’ve got to meet with them when they have the time.” Ambrozaitis said that can be complicated by the fact that not all officers work the same shift week to week, nights or days, etc.

“You just can’t do the work properly with four people,” she said, adding that burnout is a very real issue. “When there is burnout or where people are overworked because they don’t have enough time to do things, decisions made on cases may not be the best decisions. Or courses of action are taken to resolve cases sometimes with plea offers for lower than we’d like – but it’s to get the case resolved and closed and moved on so we can deal with the next thing that’s coming in on that radar screen.”

Ambrozaitis said that inability to promptly deal with all those waiting cases is very frustrating, particularly as the BOC does not seem to understand or want to understand the problem. She then reflected on the DHHS contract negotiation process and its presentation to the BOC.

“We really worked hard, we worked hard with the county attorney and them [DHHS],” she said. “We thought we put together a good package. And then they talked about it at the Committee of the Whole, and then the commissioners turned around and voted it down at the meeting. I didn’t understand, because if any of them had questions, they didn’t come to me with them. If you have questions, you go to the person who negotiated – but they didn’t – they just said no.”

Further disconcerting to the prosecutor was the commissioners’ problem with the need to hire an additional attorney to handle the influx of DHHS cases – even though the reimbursement contract would have largely covered that cost.

“It would have been negligible, and they still voted it down,” she said, adding that now the waters have been roiled with a commissioner’s inquiry to DHHS regarding revisiting/renegotiating the DHHS contract [as related to Ambrozaitis by the DHHS director]. Ambrozaitis said the director had emailed a standard blank contract template which required the BOC to accept the template language to be reflected in meeting minutes of June 21, and also to state in those meeting minutes that the BOC would vote and approve the final contract once it’s completed – with the template language, and without the dollar amount listed within the contract– then the county would be considered for a contract in the new fiscal year.

“He [Commissioner Rickie Fancon] said he wasn’t negotiating a contract, but why else would DHHS send a contract and state ‘this is what you must do at your next meeting for us to consider you for a contract?’” she said. “That’s renegotiation; that isn’t just seeing what your options are.”

Ambrozaitis said she is hearing from many people how upset they are with the commissioners for voting down the contract in the first place.

So, in a county riddled with DHHS cases, and a county board charged with looking after county residents’ best interests, why that board turned down a proffered contract that would have essentially self-funded processing those cases qualifies as a real head-scratcher.

“I don’t understand it,” Ambrozaitis said. “It’s kids, it’s their constituents, it’s business owners. This is a real issue that affects their constituents in every single township. They have done, and are doing, a disservice to their constituents.

“We all have a duty, as elected officials, to protect the people we were elected to serve. And at this point I feel like [of herself and the commissioners] I am the only one who is trying to do what I was elected to do.”

Ambrozaitis said she chose the Grewel law firm because “They have become the premier law firm for prosecutors, and it’s not often you find prosecutors who sue their county board, but the Grewel law firm has been successful for other offices,” Ambrozaitis said, adding that it will be the county paying for all the attorney fees involved, both for the BOC’s and the Prosecutor’s Office.

Ambrozaitis explained that she signed the retainer agreement on behalf of the Clare County Prosecutor’s Office as the elected prosecutor, but that it is the County Prosecutor’s Office that’s suing them – and they fund it.

“I don’t take this lightly,” she said. “This is not a course of action that I wanted to take with them, but they didn’t give me much other option. Because they aren’t listening to me; they aren’t open to communication.”

That includes one commissioner who had promised to take a vacation day to meet with her, but has yet to set up an appointment. She said this leaves her to believe there is no real intent to speak with her by any of the commissioners.

“Which is frustrating, because I hear what they are saying to other people,” Ambrozaitis said. “And they are so confused about how my office operates, and they have misconceptions about what we actually do. If they would just have an open dialogue with me, they might learn some things.”


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here