Part-time lovers

After a year of sweet talk, tiffs and prolonged periods of not formally speaking to each other, it seems Macomb County's decision on the future of its affair with the ombudsman's office is ... postponed.

At the county commission's personnel committee meeting last Wednesday, Feb. 15, about 30 people showed up to hear what the commissioners and John Eddings — the county's first, and presumably last, ombudsman — had to say to each other. It was the first time the two parties had formally met since Eddings started the job in January 2005.

It was a hot, if civil, affair.

As reported in last week's cover story, ("Watchdog out," MT, Feb. 15), the board created the ombudsman position in 2003 to help address allegations of cronyism, nepotism, racial and gender bias in county government. Eddings had listened to the concerns of county employees for a year before retiring last month due to heart problems. The board signaled in a straw poll last November that it was thinking of eliminating the office. The committee meeting was a final hearing of what Eddings has to say about his time there before a final budgetary decision was made.

Sparks flew before Eddings even addressed the board. Ombudsman supporters used the public comments portion of the agenda to cry out against what they presumed to be the board's axing of the office.

Macomb County NAACP head Ruthie Stevenson was among those admonishing the board.

"Reconsider your thoughts on what you will do to this office," Stevenson told the commissioners. "We in Macomb County cannot afford to be the poster child of racism and discrimination."

After listening to such remarks for nearly 30 minutes, the commissioners did what any self-respecting politicians under siege would do — take time to issue certificates of appreciation and wristwatches to retiring county employees.

After that, the real business began. Eddings took questions from commissioners on issues raised in his final report, given to the board in January. In it, Eddings maintained that the county government still had problems of image and substance with regard to its hiring practices. He says those problems still aren't being suitably addressed.

"Macomb is on the verge of becoming a great county," he told the 24 board members present for his opening remarks. "You're ready to take the leap into the future, but you can't take the old ways with you."

But most commissioners were all too willing to let Eddings know that their fling with the ombudsman's office was strictly a one-year stand.

Commissioner Betty Slinde (D-St. Clair Shores) told Eddings she was upset about the claims made in his report. Eddings wrote it based on the stories he heard during the 300 visits county employees and residents made to him, concluding that morale in the county work force was dangerously low. If the complaints they brought to Eddings were based on fact, Slinde asked, why didn't the commissioners see more action by his office?

"Listening to you this morning, I don't see what action you took," she said.

Eddings countered that measuring an ombudsman's work can be difficult, since presenting results on specific cases could compromise the confidentiality of those involved. He also said much of his work helped complainants resolve their issues before they needed to take formal action, the only kind that might have been recordable. "You have to take it on faith" that the office made an impact, he told the board.

Eddings added that he believes his work in addressing employee complaints may have saved the county from lawsuits several times.

The longest questioning came from Commissioner Peter Lund (R-Shelby Township). He wanted to know whether Eddings believed that the concerns county employees brought to him were true. Did Eddings believe that the county doesn't value its work force? Do county supervisors retaliate against disgruntled employees? Is there gender bias and racial bias in county government?

"I believe that it is true," Eddings replied to each question.

Lund thanked the former ombudsman for taking the time to meet with the board, and for the information he presented to the commissioners. "I hope your report doesn't go in the wastebasket," he told Eddings before signing off.

But for all the commissioners who thanked Eddings' for his efforts, others said they may not have been needed.

"He received 10 [formal] complaints, people," Commissioner Nicholyn Brandenburg (R-Macomb Township) told her colleagues. She also told Eddings she didn't see anything an ombudsman could do that she couldn't do better. "If there's someone in my district who comes to me with a complaint, I know I would investigate and take responsibility."

But, Eddings asked her, "If you take responsibility, what are you going to do to protect them? If something happens to them, you can't say, 'Get a lawyer and sue.'"

Brandenburg had a terse, safe, empty response: "I would never say, 'Get a lawyer and sue.'"

After all the talk meant for the public, it was in the closed-door budget meeting later that day when commissioners made the decision not to make a decision on the fate of the ombudsman's office.

In a 17-6 vote, with one commissioner missing, the board decided to shelve the issue until April. This represents a win of sorts for supporters of the position, many of whom had assumed the board would cut funding for the office within the week.

"We're pleasantly surprised by the decision," NAACP vice president Gregory Murray told News Hits. "We came to the meeting expecting the position to be cut."

Commissioner Phil DiMaria (D-Eastpointe) vowed to News Hits after leaving the budget meeting, "We're going to have an ombudsman in Macomb County." He said a compromise may be reached in which Eddings would work the ombudsman position part time. DiMaria and other proponents of that idea now have about two months to gather support from their colleagues.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or by e-mail at [email protected]
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