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HARRISON – The Clare County Road Commission’s June 5 board meeting saw a room filled nearly to capacity by visitors. The full board was in attendance, along with its attorney Angelina Barnes. Visitors who filled the gallery included Clare County Commissioners Leonard Strouse, Dale Majewski, Mark Fitzpatrick and David Hoefling, along with several township supervisors, trustees and other interested community members.
After taking care of approval of minutes, hearing the financial report and approving accounts payable, the floor was opened to public comment.
The first question fielded by the Board was how far back to the Road Commission minutes go online, and the response was 2011. The second comment came from Mike Haley, Hayes Township Board trustee, who thanked the Road Commission for having attended the most recent Hayes Township Board meeting, as well as the prompt road repair near the Dairy Queen.
Dan Dysinger, Grant Township supervisor, then thanked the Road Commission Board for restoring the 2019 in-kind funds match for his township. That’s where the compliments ended. Dysinger said there are other ongoing projects, and he would wait and comment at a later time to address some issues he might have for further matches going out in future years.
“I’m well aware of MTF funding increases that the local road commission will be getting,” Dysinger said. “So I’m going to be watching that very, very closely. Just be aware that I’m concerned about that.”
Mark Fitzpatrick began comments from the Clare County Commissioners, asking about requests for documentation from the CCRC Board, particularly his May 9 request which apparently immediately went to the Road Commission’s attorney. He asked if that was standard procedure that the attorney handles FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests.
Attorney Angelina Barnes, labor and employment counsel for the Board, responded saying that all FOIA requests go first to FOIA coordinator Donna Henke, then if the coordinator needs assistance, the attorney’s office is contacted.
“We do those reviews on a regular, routine basis to make sure we’re separating exempt materials,” she said.
Barnes went on to explain that some requests require intensive IT searching to separate exempt and non-exempt, as well as multiple individuals.
Fitzpatrick said he had heard from others that they had requested information via emails and it didn’t involve legal counsel, but his does. Barnes said it falls to the discretion of the Board as to whether or not it wants legal assistance on a request. She also described the complication of multiple staff emails which are CC’d to Board members which can bring in the issue of attorney-client privilege.
Leonard Strouse then spoke of the many rumors floating around in the county about what’s going on at the Road Commission, adding that among the populous Deepak Gupta is “quite well-liked as with a lot of the work that he’s been doing. Seems like all we hear from the Board room here is this group doesn’t find him very popular.”
“I would like to know, what’s the plan forward here?” Strouse said.
Barnes responded on behalf of the Board, saying that the Board cannot speculate on rumors, but that if the Board receives complaints or concerns about something, particularly violations of state or federal laws, as well as its internal policy, it has an obligation to investigate those.
“So, while it’s doing that, there’s a lot of process that goes into that,” she said. “Interviewing, gathering information and making sure, as a part of that process, that there’s fairness and due process. Which means everybody gets a chance to be heard … As of now, if you hear rumors about staffing or personnel, those are confidential personnel matters. All staff involved in any investigation of the Road Commission – including the person, if there’s an individual being looked at – have been directed, strictly, that it is not to be discussed.”
Barnes said that is typical of any investigation, which preserves fairness for both the investigation and the person being looked at.
Commissioner Tim Haskin said there had been a great deal of rumor, speculation and innuendo floating around, and that he believed the Board had been above board in only talking about the facts.
“We can’t disclose anything,” he said. “So, we’ve not said anything. We’ve been attacked viciously in this county, by individuals that haven’t let due process take its course. In due time, it will all come to pass.”
Strouse pressed on, asking if Gupta’s job was safe or if he would be let go, to which Barnes said there would be no comment on personnel matters.
Gupta asked if he could comment and was told not if it was concerning any investigation. He then said that he would be happy to comment on all issues.
Barnes said comments and concerns could certainly be raised, but that things will not be tried in the community, rather that it will be done within the investigation “out of fairness.”
Dysinger then brought up the fact that after the closed session in the previous Road Commission Board meeting, the Board took action to reassign personnel to handle the various aspects of Gupta’s job. He asked if that action was to be reversed, and Haynack said, “It very well could be. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Commissioner Dale Majewski then brought up grumblings heard at the county regarding the Road Commission’s unresponsiveness to phone calls, road project delays, roads not being graded.
“There’s a growing concern about the Road Commission and on top of it, all this other stuff that’s going on,” Majewski said. “From a Board of Commissioners standpoint, I think what we’d like to do is hear a plan of how we’re going to right this ship.”
Gupta responded, saying that for the last few years, he had believed maintenance was lacking, but had a plan to attack that issue.
“I guess there were some forces inside our road commission that felt our maintenance was just fine,” he said. “More recently, some of our people have become aware that our maintenance is not fine and that maintenance is a problem. I’d just like to do my job and address all those issues.”
Majewski said that residents are looking to the Board of Commissioners to take some action.
“It’s gotten to that point,” he said.
It was noted that the Road Commission is currently trying to balance work and manpower. Aric McNeilly added the CCRC was completely maintenance right now, and no project had yet been started. He also said there has been no call which has gone unanswered.
Majewski then asked if he was supposed to believe the complaints he [Majewski] has heard were lies, and was told that those people should be directed to the Road Commission with their concerns.
Gupta interjected that his comments on maintenance were not referring to the current year, but were structural over the last few years.
“My comments are based on what I’m hearing from the community, what I’m hearing from the townships advisory group, what I’m hearing from the county commissioners,” Gupta said. “And from my own crew in the back, who I talk to on a daily basis. Last year, with a different board, it was decided every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday would be maintenance days and Thursday, Friday would be construction days.”
When Gupta started to speak of his having questioned a road foreman as to whether that schedule was being held to, the attorney stopped him, saying it was related to personnel discussion and could not be discussed.
Majewski reiterated the need for a plan, and Haskin acknowledged the need to “right the ship.”
“That’s a given, we know that,” Haskin said. “But until we can talk, we can’t comment.”
“There’s talk out there that the County should take over the Road Commission,” Majewski said. “We’d like to see the situation remedied.”
Haynack urged the county commissioners to be patient, and let the Board do what it has to do.
“And we’ll be right back on the straight and narrow again,” he said.
One of the five items under New Business was “Culvert Repair.”
The Commission’s agenda was accompanied by a packet including a summary cost page noting a total of $6,342.47 with detailed cost breakdown, and seven full-page photos of a damaged culvert, a backhoe and the surrounding locale. This packet referred to work done to a damaged culvert along property owned by Clare County Commissioner Mark Fitzpatrick.
Road Commissioner Tim Haskin addressed Fitzpatrick, asking him if he had been doing any work in the road right-of-way at his property, whether he had pulled a permit for the work, and if he had done any work on a culvert there. Fitzpatrick replied that he had grubbed some brush out of the right-of-way a year ago and hadn’t pulled a permit because work was being done by others in the area all the time.
“If you can show me these permits … you’re setting a precedent,” Fitzpatrick said.
Haskin accused Fitzpatrick of hooking a culvert with his backhoe and pulling it apart.
Fitzpatrick said he broke off the end of the culvert after a hole appeared in the road: also that he had called Gupta to report the hole by the pavement, and a mangled culvert which he thought looked as though it had been hit by a mower. He said he had cut off the end to allow for packing sand in to seal it off.
“That culvert has gone through an entire year,” he said. “When we got the brush away, there was the end of this culvert all mangled up there.”
Haskin went into detail describing the damage to the culvert, and a report from Aric McNielly, road maintenance foreman, which pointed to the damage done, likely by a backhoe. Fitzpatrick denied damaging the culvert.
McNeilly said it was definitely damaged by having been hooked and pulled, resulting in spiral separation under the road.
“There’s no way a mower gets anywhere near that,” he said. “That’s 10 feet below the road; an excavator hooked it and pulled it.”
Haskin said that, regardless, there was $6,300 worth of damage.
“So, next time you work in an easement, get a permit like everybody else does,” Haskin said. “You’re not special. And then we’re gonna have a chat about this six grand.”
Keeping in mind that Fitzpatrick had brought up the problem of the culvert at an April Road Commission meeting, and had been vocal at past Board of Commissioners meetings regarding talk about roads in his township meetings, and having stated that talk of a move to a five-member Road Commission Board had been bandied about for years without gaining traction – it begs the question: Does the Road Commission address such permit and damage issues as they arise, or does it typically wait until one of its two monthly meetings to publicly dress down every resident who is in permit violation? Of course, the next begged question would be: Why did the former county building inspector not bother to pull a permit?
Then despite Barnes’ previous declination to confirm that Gupta was being investigated, Commissioner Richard Haynack moved for the Board to go into closed session under Section 8A of the Open Meetings Act … further stating that the session would be closed at the request of Gupta. Dale Majewski asked if the county commissioners could be allowed to sit in on the closed session but was denied.
When the Board returned to open session, it was moved by Haskin and seconded by Hulliberger that the Board enter into settlement negotiations to resolve the matter with Gupta and authorize it to do what’s in the best interest of the Board. The meeting was adjourned and then immediately reopened at the attorney’s request.
“Any agreement that would be made between the Board and Mr. Gupta would be subject to full approval of this board,” Barnes said. “I am not resolving the matter on behalf of the Board, I’m entering into settlement negotiation on behalf of the Board, and it would be subject to a full board vote.”
At that time, Haskin moved to place Gupta on paid administrative leave until the matter is resolved.
All ongoing project questions will be referred to Allan Leonard, assistant engineering technician. It was noted that the Road Commission also consults with the engineering firm of Prein & Newhof. The meeting was then adjourned a final time.
The Clare County Road Commission meets at 9 a.m. the first and third Wednesdays of the month at 3900 E. Mannsiding Road.
After the meeting, Gupta spoke briefly with the Cleaver. Keeping in mind the limitation to not discuss the investigation, Gupta mentioned that if his employment with the Road Commission had ended that day, it had been a privilege to serve the citizens of Clare County the last five years.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed working with the townships, county commissioners, city and village officials and the general public at large,” Gupta said.
It would be a fair guess that the day’s events will be discussed in earnest at the June 19 meeting of the Clare County Board of Commissioners.