County to settle whistleblower suit

TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse County will pay its former Commission on Aging deputy director damages of $480,000, according to a confidential settlement agreement.

Laura Green sued the county in 2017 for violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act after claiming she was fired for speaking out against the COA.

County Administrator Nate Alger declined to comment on the settlement, but said it is the largest paid out by the county in recent history.

Green said she feels vindicated. The past three years have been difficult, both professionally and personally, she said.

“It’s extremely difficult when you are one person on the receiving end of so much disrespect and negativity to stand up and fight against that,” Green said. “It’s impossible, actually.”

The suit was settled in early December and later approved by the county Board of Commissioners and obtained by the Record-Eagle via a Freedom of Information Act request.

The county will pay the first $75,000, after which a county insurance policy through the Michigan Municipal Risk Management Authority will kick in to pay the rest, Alger said.

The settlement releases the county from future claims, demands or actions related to Green’s termination and is considered a compromise of a disputed claim, not an admission of liability by the county, it states.

Grant Parsons worked as Green’s lawyer, and said the current administration has no connection to the case, that the people who caused problems for Green are long departed.

“This lawsuit was settled by the current administration, which finally did a good job of looking at the case,” Parsons said. “They’ve done the right thing, so you’ve got to respect that.” Green, who was hired in 2014, was fired by the county in February 2017, with poor performance given as the reason. Three months later she filed the lawsuit against the county.

Green was fired one day after speaking during public comment at a county board meeting about what she said was a plan by county officials to divert earmarked millage funds from the COA to the county’s general fund. She also claimed the county planned to violate its own policies by awarding a contract potentially worth $2 million without going out for bids.

Tom Menzel, who was county administrator at that time, wrote in a termination letter that Green’s “demonstrated anger at the Board of Commissioners” was perceived as a direct threat to administration staff and is insubordination.

Menzel, who left his post in 2017 after less than two years on the job, criticized Green’s skills and abilities in the letter.

District Court Judge Bob Cooney, who was the county’s prosecutor at the time, gave a deposition in September.

Cooney called Menzel’s letter despicable.

Menzel also claimed Green used her county email to promote the COA millage that was up for renewal, which is a violation of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act. But the prosecutor’s office found no grounds to file a report of election law violations, according to the court file.

“I remember feeling that the administration’s stated reasons for their dissatisfaction with Ms. Green I didn’t feel were supported by anything I knew about the facts,” Cooney testifi ed.

Those years when the events were unfolding were not a pleasant time at the county and Cooney felt a great deal of personal stress, he testified. A lot of people lost their jobs and there were concerns about nepotism, as well as a lot of destructive policies and actions, he said.

“What I can say is that in all of my dealings with Ms. Green she was professional,” Cooney testified. “She seemed to have a good knowledge of her job. She seemed like someone who was very concerned about the quality of her work.”

When contacted Tuesday, Menzel said he was surprised and shocked at the settlement amount Green received and doesn’t understand how anyone would come to that conclusion. He stands behind his actions in good conscience.

“The results of her firing were justified by her activities in the performance of her job,” Menzel said. “We held people accountable for their performance with fair and measurable criteria. Her firing was justified and the facts bore that out. Steps needed to be taken.”

Green’s case was dismissed in 2018 by 13th Circuit Court Chief Judge Kevin A. Elsenheimer, who cited prior rulings that whistleblower claims cannot be made for actions that have not yet taken place.

That decision was reversed by the Michigan Court of Appeals in March.

Green said she is grateful for the small handful of people, including Cooney, who stood up and told the truth. She said the previous administration’s words and characterization of her has haunted her, as well as potential employers’ perceptions of her.

“That’s a big hill to climb up,” she said.

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