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“Incompatible offices” issue costs taxpayers over $9,000

by Judy Reed

According to financial information provided by the finance offices of both the City of Cedar Springs and the Cedar Springs Board of Education, they spent over $9,000 in attorney fees on the case of whether Pamela Conley could legally serve on both boards at the same time.

Last summer, Conley, who was a veteran school board member, filed to run for Cedar Springs City Council. City clerk Linda Branyan then sent her a letter, advising her that there might be a conflict of interest, since the city and school have contracts with each other. Conley said that her two lawyers disagreed, and Conley said she did not believe there was a conflict as long as she abstained from voting on issues where the school and city were both involved. She ran for election and won, forcing the city and school to have their attorneys investigate whether there was a legal conflict.

The issue was eventually sent to Prosecutor William Forsyth, asking for an opinion. Instead, he sent a letter to Conley explaining “an individual cannot avoid the incompatibility by abstaining from voting on resolutions…because abstention under such circumstances ‘is itself a breach of duty.’” He noted that her most expedient course of action would be to resign from either the school board or city council. If she decided to remain in both positions, the prosecutor’s office would then file an action in Circuit Court, and the judge would in all likelihood decide which office she would retain.

Conley then decided to resign from the school board.

Since then, bills have been coming in from the city and school attorneys. According to David Cairy, Assistant Superintendent and Finance Director at Cedar Springs Public Schools, they have spent well over $5,000. City of Cedar Springs Finance Director Linda Lehman said the city has spent just under $4,000. Both officials say they may not even have all the bills yet, which means the cost of the issue could go over $10,000—money that could have been spent or allocated toward other things.

Cairy noted that while they budget attorney fees each year, they don’t spend it if they don’t have to, and then try to allocate it toward future capital improvement items. Items that the $5,000 in attorney fees could have been allotted to include road repairs, energy repairs, resurfacing of tennis courts, resurfacing of gym floors, etc.

Lehman noted that the city cut several items this year that might have been covered by what they spent on attorney fees. For example, it would have covered two sets of turnout gear for the fire department (being proposed for 2010). It also would have covered repairs to the sidewalk in front of the Cedar Springs Public Library.

Cairy and Lehman said they expect there may be more bills that they haven’t yet received.

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