The Michigan Legislature has suffered a series of black eyes in the last few years, thanks to its members.
One was expelled: Rep. Cindy Gamrat (R-Plainwell), who was accused of abusing her office. Her partner-in-crime, Rep. Todd Courser (R-Lapeer), resigned before suffering the same fate.
Two have resigned as a result of plea bargains: Rep. Brian Banks (D-Harper Woods), an eight-time felon who was charged with more financial felonies, and Sen. Virgil Smith (D-Detroit), who was convicted of a felony for shooting a semi-automatic weapon at his ex-wife’s car.
Sen. Bert Johnson (D-Highland Park) has been indicted by a grand jury on charges of conspiracy and theft from a federal program. And it looks like the House will have another member who’s a convicted felon after the special election in November, as Harper Woods School Board Member Tenisha Yancey is the Democratic nominee in Banks’ old seat, which is heavily Democratic.
As embarrassing as this is for Michigan, there’s actually a more troubling scandal afoot in Macomb County. That’s because none of these state legislators had the power to inflict the damage that the top official in charge of elections and vital records can in a key Michigan county.
Karen Spranger, a local gadfly best known for donning a tinfoil suit at government meetings to protest smart meters, got swept into the clerk’s office last fall as part of the Donald Trump GOP wave crashing through Macomb.
She replaced retiring Clerk Carmella Sabaugh, who was known for running one of the most innovative and efficient offices in Michigan. All Spranger really had to do was keep key staff in place, sit back and collect her sizeable $108,880 annual salary.
But Spranger had other plans. The Detroit Free Press summarized her tenure well in the lead of its story last month:
“In her first seven months as the Macomb County Clerk/Register of Deeds, Karen Spranger got kicked off her county computer for allowing noncounty workers on it; fired her two top appointed deputies; sued the county over a litany of issues, and was named as a defendant in three other lawsuits, including a whistle-blower complaint in federal court filed by her former top aides.
“She was fined $100 for a county ethics violation; totaled her county car in a crash; filed a criminal complaint about the news media harassing her; was caught on video pushing storage bins to a construction area before an office move she opposed, and is under investigation for allegedly lying on her affidavit to run for office.”
The article also notes that the Freep “wasn’t able to find any evidence that Spranger had held a regular job since graduating from high school.”
A St. Clair County judge is overseeing a case that could result in Spranger’s removal from office. But even if she gets the boot, it could take years for the county to recover from Hurricane Karen.
If Spranger were a state lawmaker, she could make some goofy floor speeches, introduce bills that would go nowhere and cast questionable votes. But she would be one of 110 members in the House or 38 occupants of the Senate. Her constituents could suffer from poor representation, but the overall destruction she could cause to the Legislature as an institution would be limited.
Unfortunately, Spranger is in a position to hobble critical functions in a large Michigan county as clerk.
And it’s the kind of stuff people notice. She’s in charge of a host of records, including birth, divorce, death, deeds, mortgages, liens and business registration. The office handles the filing of new civil, domestic and criminal cases and maintains all of the existing case files for the 16th Circuit Court. And Spranger is also charged with running elections.
Her office appears to be completely dysfunctional, as almost one-third of her “80-plus-member staff was unfilled or on medical leave at one point” in July, according to the Freep. Court e-filings were behind and Spranger missed the deadline to submit her budget.
Macomb County is home to almost 1 million people (including many members of my family). At this point, who has confidence that their vital records are being accurately recorded and safeguarded? Who believes Spranger can oversee a big election next year?
Sure, Macomb is a pretty colorful place, known for rough-and-tumble politics and some corrupt officials. But it’s also home to two highly popular figures, County Executive Mark Hackel, a Democrat, and Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller, a GOP former congresswoman. They’ve had plenty of experience righting the ship in government.
But cleaning up the mess in the clerk’s office could end up being the biggest challenge for the county yet.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.