Nov. 8 2018 10:20 AM

Carol Koenig continues bid for public defender


When Carol Koenig stepped down as an Ingham County commissioner last month to seek the new post of public defender, she sidestepped a conflict with state law.

But that still leaves the matter of how appropriate it is for fellow commissioners to hire a recent colleague — one who was chairing the commission until she quit.

Should Ingham County commissioners hire their former chairwoman? The county’s ethics policy advises against the practice, but some seem willing to proceed as the question inches closer to reality.

State law directly prohibits commissioners from hiring a colleague. Koenig resigned to maintain her eligibility and avoid a conflict of interest, she said.

But there is still the county ethics policy, which states: “Regardless of whether any commissioner has expressed any interest in a particular hiring or promotion, the Human Resources Department and all other County officials should exercise their discretion against the hiring of former commissioners” whenever such relationships are known.

Most commissioners contend the policy is more of a guideline than a mandate.

Ultimately, they can hire Koenig for the job regardless.

Commissioner Mark Grebner, the author of the policy, has misgivings.

“The ethics policy just says we shouldn’t appoint her to the position. The board might just very well trample over the policy.

“There’s nothing that prohibits the board from voting that way. But it just seems like a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it.”

Koenig, who served more than a decade on the board, resigned last month. But her name was still on the ballot Tuesday and she was widely expected to win.

If so and if she is also selected for the public defender job, Koenig cannot legally serve both roles. She said she would abandon the county commission again in favor of the new job.

Former East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett, who was unanimously recommended as her replacement for the rest of her term, which ends Dec. 31, would be the likely appointment to fill her role next year.

“There’s nothing that prohibits the board from voting that way. But it just seems like a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it.”

— Ingham County Commissioner Mark Grebner

“The ethics policy is “more a guideline than a mandate.”

— Former Ingham County Commissioner Carol Koenig

Should another candidate nab the public defender job, though, Koenig plans to return to the board in January.

But the luxurious option of being able to choose between the two dueling positions may be slowly sliding off the table.

A six-member committee was supposed to interview Koenig, an attorney, and five other applicants on Friday, but it was delayed. No new date has been set yet. Once it meets, the committee will recommend a candidate to the board.

The interview panel consists of commissioners Kara Hope, Teri Banas and Bryan Crenshaw — like Koenig, all Democrats — and judges Richard Ball of the 54-B District Court; Hugh Clarke, 54-A District Court; Donald Allen, 55th District Court; and Joyce Draganchuk of the 30th Circuit Court.

Koenig sees no problem with the ethics policy, calling it “more a guideline than a mandate.”

“What the ethics policy is getting at is you don’t want a county commissioner trying to influence existing employees to hire relatives,” Koenig said. “That’s the bottom line.

There have been people who have served in an elected position and then returned for employment.”

Deputy County Controller Teri Morton, who helped narrow the list of public defender candidates, said she was only made aware of the policy language after the decision had already been made to grant Koenig an interview. She declined to comment except to note that Koenig was otherwise “certainly qualified” for the job.

“But that’s completely a board appointment and a board decision to make,” Morton added.

Human Resources Director Sue Graham said the policy language didn’t force her staff to screen Koenig out of the process. She only ticks boxes for minimum qualifications and sends the candidates up the chain of command. She also said the policy provides no mandate to preclude hiring former elected officials.

A recording of a recent meeting of the commission’s Democratic Caucus revealed misgivings by Commissioner Hope, a member of the interview committee, about Koenig’s candidacy.

“You can’t really hire her anyway so she’s applying for no reason?” she said. “So we’re doing this whole thing for no reason?” Two days after the caucus met on Oct. 30, Hope said she could not attend the interview session, causing it to be postponed indefinitely. Hope’s absence would have only created an opportunity for the other two commissioners on the panel to deadlock on a recommendation, officials said.

Hope didn’t return multiple calls for comment.

The interviews have likely been postponed into next year, by which time Koenig could resume her role on the county commission.

A postponement untill January would also give newly seated commissioners a chance to get involved in the process.

“I feel bad for Carol, but we all have to make decisions in life,” added Board Chairman Victor Celentino.

The other five candidates are: Cassandra Green, a partner at the law firm of Wieber Green; Assistant Ingham County Prosecutor Russel Church; attorneys Henry Etheridge and Karen Phillips, and Joe Abood, chief deputy attorney for the city of Lansing.

County officials have been accepting applications for the new public defender office under standards recently implemented by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission. State officials allocated cash to the fund the countywide positions with the goal of providing better representation for impoverished defendants.

Celentino said he’s unsure if he would recuse himself on a vote to hire Koenig if she nabs the recommendation. Commissioner Sarah Anthony, who was likely to be elected to the state House of Representatives on Tuesday, said she wasn’t sure if Koenig’s longstanding relationship with the board would make a difference in the hiring process.

Crenshaw, a member of the interview committee, said he’d consider recusing himself from the final hiring decision but said Koenig should be considered for the job based on her experience and qualifications — and nothing else. He also emphasized that the ethics policy only offers loose guidance, not direct instruction, for him and his colleagues.

“I don’t want to say it’s not enforceable, but it’s not concrete,” Crenshaw added. “I’m going to the interviews with an open mind, not in the sense that I’ve previously worked with Carol. I’m just looking at what’s in the best interest of that office. If Carol has the qualities for the position, then that’s what I would be looking for.”

But Commissioner Randy Maiville, one of two Republicans members on the 14-member board, said Koenig has only placed the board in an “awkward position.”

“If they don’t recommend her, they’ll need to interact with her in the near future as a county commissioner,” Maiville explained. “I know Carol well enough to know she is above retaliation. However, this policy is in place for a reason. The policy is what it is, and is intended to not place people in this awkward position.”

Triplett, Democratic legal counsel for the Michigan House of Representatives, former East Lansing mayor and Board Chairman of the Capital Area Transportation Authority, is expected to be solidify his appointment later this month following a unanimous recommendation from county’s Democratic Caucus.

“The voters of the Ninth District deserve representation for this period of time and they need a representative who is able to hit the ground running on day one,” Triplett said. “I wouldn’t have put my name forward if I wasn’t prepared to continue to serve on the county board for a longer period of time.”

Commissioners touted Triplett’s wealth of experience as they picked him for the post over Irene Cahill, longtime forestry supervisor for the city of Lansing and board member for the Bailey Community Association, and Erin Graham, board vice president at East Lansing Public Schools and professor at Michigan State University.

Triplett “quietly maneuvers things. He seems to know what he’s doing. I’d call him cerebral,” Grebner said at the recent Democratic Caucus meeting. “Nate will be a real pain for everybody and I’m happy that he might be a long-termer here.

He could be a serious power on the board going forward.”