Legal battle troubles intensify for Macomb County Clerk Karen Spranger
Battle between Spranger, Macomb County officials continues
MACOMB COUNTY, Mich. – Embattled Macomb County Clerk Karen Spranger was in court Tuesday, facing legal action from the County Executive's Office.
Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel is seeking an injunction to force Spranger to go along with a partial move to a new county building.
The court didn't make a decision Tuesday. Instead, everyone ended up at the new building to hash out the two issues, highlighted by the storage of two safes and having separate storage for vital records.
Arguments between Spranger and Macomb County officials never made it out of the judge's chambers. Instead, the judge ordered the two sides to go to the new building and work it out. Along the way, Local 4 asked Spranger about her issue with the move.
"The issue is obviously how can we either separate the functions of each sub-department, keep them apart, and to control security?" Spranger said. "There's a security issue I have."
Is it just vital records or is it every sub-department?
"Every department," Spranger said. "It's just not good to keep them together.
"It's just my requirements. It comes down to my statutory requirements."
All parties listened to the discussion inside the new building, but almost immediately, whatever agreement there was seemed to be lost.
Deputy Executive Mark Deldin said he's cautiously optimistic they have agreed on two issues. Spranger said afterward the two issues were resolved, but she said there are still "many" other issues.
Did Spranger hide moving boxes?
A legal battle unfolded May 4 after video evidence appeared to show Spranger hiding 25 moving boxes to block the county's partial move to a newly renovated building.
Packing was supposed to begin May 4 in the clerk's office ahead of the planned move to a new building. But when workers showed up in the morning, the moving boxes were gone.
A sign said, "Do not enter," but that didn't stop Spranger in her effort to foil the county's plan to move part of her office down the street.
When workers from the Office of Vital Records showed up Thursday morning, 25 moving boxes were missing.
Some of the boxes had been stashed in a construction area, and courthouse security video obtained by Local 4 appears to show Spranger hiding the boxes just after 7 a.m.
The incident is the latest example of Spranger's refusal to go along with the county's plan because she hasn't been included in the planning process. There are residents who see both sides of the battle.
"As far as her having a say on it, I think there can be a little bit of a middle ground there," Julie Bejma said.
Spranger wasn't in the office when Local 4 was there, and she didn't answer any phone calls. In a letter to the deputy executive dated Tuesday, she accused him of trying to take over jurisdiction of her office.
She said her concerns are the security of the records, the number of employees packed in the new space and preventing turf disputes.
"I think there's better ways to get things done than that," Bejma said. "That just seems immature. If you've got to hide boxes and hide in bathrooms just to make your point, that's not right."
Workers said Spranger admitted to hiding the boxes and said the boxes aren't moving.
Local 4 has learned Spranger asked corporation counsel to hire outside counsel to file an injunction to stop the move, which counsel noted was an obvious conflict of interest, and also without merit, so he denied both requests.
Emails reveal battle between Spranger and officials
After spending nearly $1.5 million on renovations, Macomb County is a week and a half away from moving some vital county services into a new building, but embattled new Macomb County clerk Karen Spranger is objecting to the move.
The county wants to move the ROD office as part of a plan set in motion two and a half years ago, but Spranger is pushing to stay in the old building.
Mark Hackel's office said no to Spranger's request, and it's clear his office is done sugarcoating things for the new clerk.
Local 4 obtained emails between county officials that illustrate just how strained the relationship between Spranger and Macomb County officials have become.
On April 24, part of an email from Spranger to corporation council John Schapka revealed she asked what her rights are to make decisions regarding the move to the new building.
"What are my rights to make decisions regarding this plan action move," Spranger sent.
Schapka's response bluntly laid out that she has no authority to interfere, saying the matter is non-negotiable.
"This matter is non-negotiable," Schapka sent. "The move will proceed as planned."
A week later, after Spranger allegedly skipped a meeting she'd requested, an annoyed Deputy Executive Mark Deldin asked her to become part of the solution, instead of the only obstacle.
"It is my hope and final plea that you for once become part of the solution (instead of) being the only obstacle," Deldin said in an email to Spranger.
On Tuesday, an email from Spranger's attorney claimed an overreach by the county executive's office and said it's the clerk's purview to determine who goes in which buildings.
"Ms. Spranger counters that there has been an overreach by the Office of the County Executive ... who goes where in what buildings is her purview, not the county executive," Spranger's attorney Frank Cusumano sent to Deldin.
"We get no cooperation," Deldin said. "She is attempting to subvert the plan that has been two and a half years in the making and $1.4 million later. She just doesn't want to move there. We are frustrated to no end and we are just working around her right now."
Spranger declined an on-camera interview, but has said in the past she wants to be part of the decision-making process even though she was recently elected.
The county said moving day will be May 13, and it will be open for business on May 15, whether Spranger likes it or not.
Home listed as Spranger's primary residence overrun with raccoons
Macomb County officials said they can no longer pretend there's not a problem with Spranger.
Spranger was asked in April if she committed a crime when she filed to run for clerk. When a candidate files paperwork to run for clerk, they have to put down their primary address. Now neighbors are saying the home Spranger listed hasn't been lived in for awhile.
According to Macomb County officials, the home on Hudson Avenue in Warren is Spranger's primary address. Assessment records list Spranger as the owner, but a quick look at the home shows overgrown foliage outside and huge stacks of boxes and clutter inside.
Neighbors said Spranger gets the mail every few weeks, but not much more than that.
Now the house has become a problem.
"I was in the backyard and noticed raccoons coming out of the house, and I called the city," neighbor Dayton Hood said.
Spranger said she stays at the home occasionally and is in the process of selling it. She said she wasn't lying on the original affidavit. Even if she was, that's not the concern for the county right now.
"Many people have realized there is a problem," Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said.
At this point, the county's concern is making sure Spranger and her office can process the daily legal requests from judges and citizens.
"What's the solution?" Hackel asked. "Well, we're going to continue to help as necessary."
Technically, lying on the initial affidavit carries a five-year jail sentence if a person is convicted, but the secretary of state and the elections board are not investigating. Local 4 has learned a local lawsuit would have to be filed. If it is, it won't come from the county.
Spranger wouldn't say where she lives right now, but she said she's currently looking for a new place.
Spranger crashes county car
Officials said Spranger was driving west at 9:28 p.m. Wednesday in the left lane of 12 Mile Road. They said as she approached Groesbeck Highway, the traffic signal was red, and she said she started to brake.
Spranger said her foot slipped off the brake and onto the gas pedal, causing the county car to accelerate and crash into a 2006 Jeep stopped at the red light.
Spranger and the 60-year-old Warren woman were not injured in the crash, officials said.
Roseville police said, "There is no indication of drug, alcohol or cellphone use by either driver prior to the crash."
The county's 2013 Ford Focus had to be towed due to the damage. The Warren woman drove her Jeep after the crash scene was cleared.
Spranger was issued citations for failure to stop within a clear assured distance and for having no proof of insurance at the time of the crash.
Spranger fined for ethics violation
Spranger's dispute with Macomb County officials took another new twist Wednesday after the county's ethics board ruled she was in violation of county ordinances.
Spranger, who hid from Local 4 cameras in a bathroom last week, has been very quiet throughout the process, but she was available for questions on Wednesday as she faced an ethics committee following complaints by two former employees.
The board didn't need the 60 days it was afforded to make a decision. It found Spranger has made some ethical errors in just her 3 1/2 months on the job. The other question that arose Wednesday: Is Spranger qualified to hold the office of clerk?
Spranger was given a $100 fine for not following IT mandates by the county and allowing two people she improperly deputized to illegally have access to her county computer.
The committee also heard testimony that Spranger created a hostile work environment, which she denied.
"There's just a few disagreements that get to a level that people need to understand we need to get back to the basics of working it out," Spranger said.
The complaints were filed by her chief deputies, Erin Stahl and Paul Kardasz, who were fired by Spranger shortly after the disagreement.
"As a deputy, I was doing things the clerk should do," one deputy said, adding that Spranger is in over her head.
"She has no clue, nor did she want to understand what the workload was," another deputy said.
The committee asked questions about Spranger's lack of training and asked why, at times, she seemed unprepared Wednesday.
"I'm not prepared for dates and times," Spranger said.
"There's been a lot of talk about job training today. Do you think you're capable of doing this job?" Spranger was asked.
"Definitely. Definitely," Spranger said.
Spranger was whisked away by her attorney at that moment, but she told Local 4 that some of her policies are common sense, and she hopes to improve services.
Kardasz and Stahl still have a whistleblower lawsuit against Spranger and the county.
Spranger barred from using county computers
The then-newly elected Macomb County clerk was barred from using county computers in January after officials said she violated information technology security protocols.
Macomb County attorney John Schapka said in January that Spranger allowed two non-county employees access to her computer, which has confidential information on it.
Spranger took office on Jan. 1, and just a couple of weeks later, her access to her computer was completely revoked.
Schapka said Spranger can't log onto her computer or access files.
The incident began because of a debate over Michigan statutes, which allow Spranger to appoint her own clerks. She had already appointed two clerks -- the number Macomb County has regularly had -- but Schapka said Spranger wanted to appoint more people, saying it's her right under those statutes.
Spranger swore in two more associates last week to work as office employees, but just because they were sworn in didn't mean the county had money in the budget to hire them, so their positions were declared illegitimate. That made giving them access to computer files a violation.
Spranger's computer ban wasn't permanent, but more of a suspension until Macomb County officials could make sure the situation doesn't happen again.
Spranger released the following statement:
"Let it be known that the county computer access was denied on Jan. 11 without any prior notification to my Offices. I await the detailed documented incident report from the Office of County Executive departments to fully address any policy violations. I acknowledge receipt of the hand delivered letter of Jan. 13 which outlines steps to fully empower my newly sworn deputies (Public Act 18 of 1921 MCL 50.131) by meeting with Finance and Human Resources. This shall include a detailed reorganization chart which identifies and fulfills many customer service improvements. I am addressing both my statutory and constitutional mandates with an extremely dedicated staff and look forward to a return of full access rights to openly correspond using our advanced technologies. These protocols and policies need to be clearly outlined for a better understanding of expectations for all those working diligently on behalf of the taxpayers of Macomb County."
Spranger avoids questions about dispute with county board
The county is pushing new technology it thinks will boost efficiency, but Spranger is pushing back. The battle has escalated to the point of a potential lawsuit, but Spranger went to great lengths to avoid talking about it.
Spranger hid in the bathroom as Local 4 tried to ask about her potential lawsuit against the board of commissioners. When she finally emerged, she didn't answer any questions.
Local 4 followed Spranger down six flights of stairs trying to get a comment, but she wouldn't talk. You can see some of the attempts in the video posted below.
Although Local 4 cameras could see the clerk, her lawyer, Frank Cusumano, said Spranger was busy and unavailable to talk.
Spranger is considering suing the Macomb County Board of Commissioners. In January, the board implemented an electronic agenda management system. Spranger said it takes away from her duties.
"She believes that the county commissioners cannot unilaterally take those duties away from her," Cusumano said. "She intends to protect those duties for the office."
"This new system is not denying her any ability to do her job," board chair Bob Smith said. "She can still come in here, she can take notes, she can takes minutes, but she doesn't have to."
Spranger was newly elected as Macomb County clerk in November.
"Anyone can file a lawsuit," Cusumano said. "She'll have her day in court."
Stay with ClickOnDetroit.com for updates as we continue to follow the dispute between Spranger and Macomb County officials.
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