County, complainant look to settle dispute
MANISTIQUE – Three years after a complaint against the Schoolcraft County Board of Commissioners was filed with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, it appears the saga will be coming to an end. During a recent meeting of the board, commissioners worked on the details of a training course that could clear them from any further action regarding the complaint.
In 2009, county residents Cindy Pawley and Robert Fiegel filed a complaint against the board with the MDCR after an encounter they deemed age discrimination. The complaint detailed a June 2009 interview process in which both Pawley and Fiegel applied for the position of Schoolcraft County Public Transit director. During the official hiring, conducted by the county board, commissioners voted to hire then 35-yearold John Stapleton. Afterward, Commissioner Al Grimm, now chairperson, made a comment regarding the applicants’ ages.
“My criteria for the position is someone young, someone who has lived in the county and put their time in here and deserves a promotion, rather than someone who’s been working somewhere else and has a pension,” he said at the time. “We have to support our young people.”
Despite Commissioner Dan LaFoille’s explanation that Grimm was not involved in the personnel committee, who recommended Stapleton, the matter moved forward, since Grimm did, eventually, cast a vote on the candidate.
Grimm’s comments and the county’s decision to hire Stapleton, prompted Pawley and Fiegel to file their complaint. According to Pawley, the complaint was centered, not on the fact that nor she or Fiegel was hired, but by Grimm’s remarks.
“The statement indicates a preexisting mindset by someone with the authority to make/vote on decisions, about a specific kind of person only, who should be hired by the county,” she explained recently. “This type of pre-determined attitude and action is considered to be prejudicial under Civil Rights laws that were enacted to promote fair and open opportunities for everyone. This complaint never has had anything to do with the hiring decision it had to do with the public statement of age discrimination.”
The complaint was wrongly referred to as a “lawsuit” by the county, Pawley noted, causing confusion among county residents.
“The two terms ‘complaint’ and ‘lawsuit’ are not interchangeable,” she said. “A ‘lawsuit’ is filed in court, and a complaint gives notice of the claim to the other party, often through an enforcement agency such as the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.”
The complaint was meant to get the attention of the commissioners, Pawley continued, and to encourage them to pursue training in hiring, interviewing and learning what statements are acceptable during a public meeting.
“Since this complaint has been filed, it has become even more evident that commissioners are unaware of when things should be made public and when they should go into executive session,” she said.
In 2009, Pawley said the MDCR suggested seeking a monetary settlement, as the board would be unlikely to pay attention to a sole complaint.
“I was never looking for money/ I only wanted change to occur,” she said. “I wanted our county to realize they need to follow the same laws as the rest of the United States.”
The legal committee of the MDRC eventually proposed a cash settlement of $20,000 to Pawley and $10,000 to Fiegel. In late 2011, the board decided that they would not settle. Since that time, the board has agreed to participate in mandatory training on procedures relating to the complaint and beyond.
“The settlement of mandatory training for the county commissioners may not be the apology I hoped for but it is a win/win for all of us,” Pawley said. “Our county can do better. We have a great community with strong, caring people. Let’s learn from this episode and find ways to work together for a fair and bright future for people, business and governmental units. It’s not only the law; it is the right thing to do.”
During the audit-finance meeting Thursday, the board discussed a possible date in which to complete the mandatory training.
“They (Pawley and Fiegel) will drop those suits if we complete this special training,” Commissioner LaFoille explained.
Commissioner Jerry Zellar questioned whether each commissioner was specifically named as being mandated to attend the training or if they could wait until after any new commissioners elected in November’s election come into office.
County Clerk Dan McKinney stated he would look into this and placed the issue on the next meeting’s agenda. During Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners agreed to attend the training session on Oct. 15.