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A Conversation with Chuck Clarke

Benzie County’s administrator answers his critics

December 4, 2008 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Benzie County Administrator Chuck Clarke has drawn criticism for his handling of personnel matters, particularly in the county’s planning and zoning departments.
Chuck Clarke has been the Benzie County administrator for 10 years. Recently, the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service interviewed Mr. Clarke regarding the tumult in the county’s planning and zoning departments and criticisms that he and other county leaders haven’t done enough to cure persistent problems in those departments.

Here’s what Mr. Clarke had to say, via email, about proposed planning department budget cuts that suggested laying off Benzie County Planner Dave Neiger, the effectiveness of Benzie County Zoning Administrator Craig Seger, the inability of Mr. Seger and Mr. Neiger to work together, and Clarke’s pending job review:

Institute: I know there's been a lot of outcry over the whole Neiger situation and his proposed layoff due to budget cuts. What's your take on this, and what do you think an appropriate outcome would be regarding Mr. Neiger's future?

Mr. Clarke: Neiger certainly has his core of followers, but the Benzie County Board of Commissioners and higher staff had grown weary over the years with his lack of accomplishing many things and needing to be bailed out of the things he did poorly. This became more evident when Don Swartz (an assistant administrator in zoning) got sick and then passed away, and Neiger became more exposed when making incomplete zoning decisions. His failure to make progress on the zoning ordinance predates Swartz’s passing. There were detailed meetings with Neiger, Swartz, and others in 2005 to ascertain what needed to be done to complete the ordinance and a timeline of limited duration was established. That was all agreed upon and is documented. It wasn’t complied with, but we continued to try to put Neiger in a position to succeed.  

The Seger hire was supposed to entirely free Neiger up to concentrate on completing the ordinance, but it quickly became evident to then-planning commission chairman Cliff Graves and others that he couldn’t do it and Seger was assigned the task. This was all spelled out in his performance evaluation, by the way. And, Neiger won’t admit this to anyone, but he told me and others that he would need a consultant to help him. So, why the outcry?  

I think there is a core of people that do not want zoning regulations of any kind and lack of action is the desired result. That fits well with Neiger’s lightweight performance and congenial personality. There is a perception out there that Neiger completes things and does things well. (The) reality is, that track record does not exist. The emphasis on zoning all along has been very general, in that the guidance has been that the ordinance should reflect the master plan and should show a balance between economic development and environmental protection.

Institute: How do you respond to allegations that the budget cuts were somehow a way to deal with personnel issues regarding Neiger?

Mr. Clarke: Budget cuts were all about spending our money more wisely, and sometimes that means eliminating positions or changing how things are done. The budget committee thought it could get much more bang for the buck by changing to contracted services for the planning function, among other things, and certainly had enough reason to believe that it would be successful and attain excellent results.  

I gave them three opportunities to back out for political reasons, but they all wanted to stick to their guns at the time. We have successfully changed services from employee to contracted in other programs, and have saved money and received as good or a better product.

Institute: Does Craig Seger continue to have your full confidence?

Mr. Clarke: Seger is taking some hits, is not used to it, and is experiencing some bumps, like the confrontation with Eric VanDussen (in which police were called to the county building after VanDussen complained that Seger wouldn’t let him view topography maps.) One in the public sector still has to be civil to those who are trying to destroy you. Seger remains an excellent hire and a bargain for what he brings to the table.

He has better handled his relationship with Neiger and has been cognizant to not confront him in meetings. He has already brought better organization and performance to the zoning and soil erosion requirements...that whole operation and its relationship to the affected municipalities should continue to improve if allowed to. It may take a few years, though.

Institute: Do you have any regrets or thoughts regarding the way Seger was hired, which has attracted some criticism?

Mr. Clarke: What is spread by VanDussen and others is that the Seger hire was some kind of inside deal. That is 180 degrees from the truth.  

When Swartz died, we were trying to go to a full-time zoning administrator but couldn’t afford it. Seger, who we knew from the building of the Betsie Valley Trail, got wind of this and wanted the job. He started coming by the office expressing his interest. I would say, “Craig, we don’t have the money, you’re priced out of our league anyway, and you are pretty much overqualified.”  

He would go away and come back with a plan on how to make it work. I would glance at the plan, file it, and send him off. He repeated this process a couple of times with the same results. He obviously wanted the job and was trying what he could do to sell himself like a lot of prospective candidates do to get jobs.  Finally, after about a year, we were ready to interview candidates. County Commissioner Mary Pitcher, who was in charge of the interview committee, didn’t want to interview him because of the above reasons.

I told Mary, “He’s been trying real hard, so we ought to at least give him the courtesy of an interview.” So, we interviewed him and about three or four other candidates. Four commissioners, Cliff Graves as head of the county planning commission, and I were present. Seger did an outstanding job of presenting himself and how things could be accomplished, and everyone was highly impressed.  

We had a follow-up interview with the same group and two other commissioners joined in the audience to listen. Everyone was just kind of blown away. It was discussed among the interview committee how his hire could work, a concept of the structure was developed, and the interview committee presented it to the board of commissioners. It included Seger as the department head over all three functions of planning, zoning, and soil erosion, which was approved. Neiger was told of it and seemed fine, but later strongly objected, as he took it to mean that Seger would just be in charge of zoning and soil erosion.  

Once Seger was hired, two of the six commissioners seemed to forget what was discussed and opposed the plan, along with the commissioner who was absent at the interview, and the planning and zoning functions then became separate.

The interview process was thorough, open, the position had been advertised, options were discussed, an agreement was reached, the best candidate was chosen, and then some commissioners started changing their minds. This wasn’t a process that maybe could be related to the “good old days” when friends and relatives may have been hired, as we only had a professional perspective of Seger through his work on the Betsie Valley Trail.

Institute: Is the fact that you are being evaluated an unusual event or par for the course? What do you plan to tell your evaluators regarding your accomplishments?

Mr. Clarke: The evaluation topic and the emphasis on it came as a surprise to me as being right on top of the Neiger fallout. Evaluations should be a routine thing; I had an unorganized one at the beginning of 2007, and I sense that making a public priority out of doing mine at this time was done to shift some of the political pressure to me as a more convenient target.  

Topics I think I will address cover the last year or two and include some of the accomplishments as mentioned above, sometimes the lack of decisiveness on the commissioners’ part, and my frustrations with not being able to clean up the house...I assume it will be completed in December and the final product then becomes part of the record.

Institute: Do you feel there has been adequate leadership regarding fixing the problems in planning and zoning?

Mr. Clarke: No. The leadership decision should have been made a year and a half ago, with Seger being given the responsibilities of the supervision of the three functions in planning and zoning of which, among other things, was what he was hired for. Since then, the board majority’s, mine, and Graves’ direction to Seger has been communicated, understood, and followed.

Direction to Neiger by the above has been communicated, but he has gravitated to others and didn’t always pay attention to the former. The current makeup of the planning commission consists mainly of Neiger’s supporters and they obviously are fine with what he brings to the table.

Institute: It’s no secret that Neiger and Seger don’t like each other. Why has this situation been allowed to persist as long as it has?

Mr. Clarke: I, along with Graves, have been able to eliminate the consternation of Seger as it relates to Neiger and, to the best of my knowledge, he has not challenged him in public or private in quite a while. We moved Neiger to another room at Neiger’s request, and this was done on my part to as much to get Neiger away from the secretary and much tension there as it was to get Neiger and Seger separated. So, since they are independent heads, the best I can do is to keep things civil, which has happened.  

That they cannot work together professionally just shows a lack of respect for each other’s abilities and I or anyone, can only get marginal results from their joint contributions when that is the case. We have several people in the building that aren’t team players or loyal and, in my opinion, they need to move on. The board has the control over the department heads hiring, firing, and assignments. I do not, but I am their daily and direct supervisor. I can only make recommendations and have to live with the outcome of the board’s decisions.

Institute: What was your professional background before hiring on with Benzie? Please list some of your accomplishments during your time with Benzie?

Answer: “I have been with the county for 10-1/2 years. I retired as a Marine Corp. officer after 20 years, and had five years as a manager of a private business after that. A list of accomplishments that come to mind:

  • Cleaning up how the county accounted for certain services that had independent revenue sources by establishing separate funds for them. These funds included solid waste, ambulance/EMS, animal control, commission on aging, 9-1-1 and the building department. This helped to better account for their revenue and expenses. The health of the general fund and most of the other funds started to improve and have stayed that way.

  • Within about five years, we attained our 10 percent cash fund balance objective, growing from around a 1 percent level, as recommended by the auditors.

  • Turning the ambulance/emergency medical services function into a more accountable and professional service.

  • Upgrading the technology in the government and at the same time saving money by using commercial software instead of a programmer.  

  • Getting health insurance costs under control by taking a number of innovative measures, initially saving us $100,000 off the cost of the plan, continuing to take cost-effective moves each year, and at the same time keeping employee health benefits at the top level.  

  • Improving the professionalism and capabilities of the departments and some other positions with new hires whom I either selected or recommended.  

  • Obtaining ownership for the county and being the impetus on the restoration efforts of the Point Betsie Light Station.                 

  • Settling union contracts with excellent provisions for both the employee and the county with limited input from legal counsel.  

  • Recommending and getting approval of changing the board of commissioners’ process of decision-making to provide for a “committee of the whole” structure to address finance and personnel issues instead of smaller committees, so that all of the commissioners would be involved.

Glenn Puit is a veteran journalist and a county policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org. For additional reporting on Benzie County’s planning, zoning, and administrative problems, visit the Benzie page of the Institute’s Web site, www.mlui.org.

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