New Macomb County clerk at odds with board, employees

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

In just three months on the job, Macomb County Clerk Karen Spranger has fired her two top aides, been barred from the county’s computer system and battled commissioners over her right to fire unionized employees.

To call it a rocky start would be putting it mildly.

Macomb County Clerk Karen Spranger defeated a Democratic challenger in November by just 637 votes.

Shortly after she took office, her computer access was revoked when county officials accused her of allowing non-employees to log in behind the clerk’s desk. She didn’t get access back until mid-March.

Then, she terminated her only appointees — Paul Kardasz, chief deputy clerk, and Erin Stahl, deputy register of deeds — in March. Kardasz and Stahl have since filed a civil rights and whistleblower lawsuit against her and the county on claims she fired them for complaining about her work performance.

Most recently, Spranger went to the board of commissioners to request $15,000 from the clerk’s special projects fund to pay an independent attorney to review a county information technology contract and litigate her ability to fire union employees. The board voted 12-1 to reject her request.

The issues in Spranger’s first three months as clerk have raised concerns among county officials who say she’s interfering with operations.

“I think everyone in Macomb County is concerned right now,” Macomb County Deputy Executive Mark Deldin said. “We have little jurisdiction over the way she chooses to run the county clerk’s office.”

However, Spranger and her former campaign adviser, Joseph Hunt, insist that county officials are unfairly targeting her and making false accusations.

“They cannot accept the fact that a Republican won the election,” Hunt said. “The office of county executive has been taking away every statutory right she has to run her offices.”

Spranger narrowly defeated Democrat Fred Miller — who was endorsed by longtime county Clerk Carmella Sabaugh — by 637 votes in November’s election.

Michigan GOP officials credited her victory, and those of Treasurer Larry Rocca and Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller — to President Donald Trump’s strength in Macomb County and heavy straight-ticket voting by Republicans.

Spranger got nearly half of her votes — 49.5 percent — from voters who cast straight-party GOP ballots.

As county clerk, Spranger essentially leads her own department and is charged with hiring the chief deputy clerk and deputy register of deeds. All other employees are unionized.

According to the county, Spranger is being paid $108,880 a year.

The recent criticism of Spranger from county officials is a stark contrast from the praises Sabaugh received during her 23-year tenure.

County Executive Mark Hackel, a Democrat, said Sabaugh had “stellar” deputy clerks and the department was modernized under her lead.

Access revoked

Spranger, 64, said the county had no right to revoke her computer access and failed to complete a full investigation of the matter.

Deldin said Spranger violated the county’s IT policy by allowing two “acquaintances” to log in to the system using Spranger’s user ID and password to access county records.

But Spranger said there was no evidence of non-employees logging in with her password and viewing records.

“There’s so much misinformation, I don’t even know where to begin,” Spranger said. “There’s a lot of confusion and overreaction.”

Spranger’s attorney, Frank Cusumano Jr., has told commissioners that the clerk’s discretion to appoint deputies, “compensated and uncompensated,” was at issue; he argued she has full discretion to do so, and that the non-compensated individuals who were using Spranger’s computer were working on her behalf in her capacity as clerk.

Hunt said Spranger appointed him as a volunteer deputy clerk and that he used her computer to browse the web and research Chinese restaurants. “I never had her password,” he said.

“I put in all my paperwork and I was given a badge and all of a sudden someone took it away,” Hunt said. “The thing that they don’t realize is that Karen runs these offices and it’s up to Karen to create the policies, rules and procedures of this office.”

After Spranger’s computer access was revoked, Deldin said he asked her to sign the county’s IT policy but she refused.

She went two months without being able to use the county’s computer system until March 14, when Deldin said he compromised by allowing Spranger to sign a document saying she received a copy of the policy.

Spranger said she was skeptical of the IT policy and wanted an independent attorney to ensure it was fair.

“You cannot, in anybody’s fairness, sign a document without having it reviewed by another attorney,” she said.

The county board of commissioners said it rejected Spranger’s request for $15,000 because it lacked details.

For example, there was no breakdown of how much the attorney would charge per hour or why the services would cost $15,000, board chairman Bob Smith said.

There also was little chance Spranger would win the case, given the county’s ordinance allows the union to protect its employees, he said.

“She came to us with a number off her head and $15,000 really meant nothing to us,” Smith said. “She couldn’t show us that the money that she identified in her budget was allowable to be used for this request.”

Donna Cangemi, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 411, which represents about one-third of county employees, declined to comment for this article.

Deldin said Spranger is also at odds with the county over its $65 million capital improvement plan, approved in 2014, that would move the clerk’s department out of the county court building into other county offices in early May.

“She’s not able to give the county executive any substantive reasoning on why it won’t work,” Deldin said. “We are forging ahead with this plan.”

Some Macomb County officials say Spranger’s actions are premature, considering she just started the job and has not previously held elected office.

“From my perspective, it is counterproductive,” Smith said. “I have spoken with other people in the county that recently took office and they feel that you learn before you start dismantling.”

‘Level of distrust’

Before becoming county clerk, Spranger said she worked as an environmental consultant for a private foundation.

According to her profile on the Michigan Voters Guide, she also has “hands on work experience” in the Van Dyke Public Schools. Hunt said Spranger worked in the administrative offices, focusing on cooperative education in the district.

Spranger, a self-proclaimed citizen advocate, said she attended local government meetings for six years before her election.

Notably, Spranger spoke out about alleged misspending in the county’s budget and, during the campaign, called for more transparency in county government.

“They don’t turn over reports or necessary information that citizens should be able to review,” Spranger said in an interview with The Detroit News last summer. “We have to hunt for information.”

In 2015, Spranger ran for mayor of Warren, where she resides.

Her Michigan Voters Guide profile says she is single and one of 16 siblings.

Officials say they are unclear about when Spranger plans to replace her two deputies, who typically handle court records and register of deeds.

Hackel said despite the turmoil in the clerk’s office, the staff is still equipped to handle the May 2 special election. Seven county school districts have money issues on the ballot.

“We are very fortunate here in the county to have some folks that really understand what’s going on in spite of her shortcomings,” Hackel said. “My bigger concern is her implementing some new policy or order that’s going to cause a problem in this election.”

According to the lawsuit, Kardasz and Stahl claim they were terminated after they reported that “the Clerk was unfit to serve in this vital role and that citizens dependent on the services of the Clerk’s office were being harmed by the mismanagement of that office.”

Both appointees were fired soon after filing complaints against Spranger with the county’s ethics board on March 10, according to the lawsuit. Kardasz was terminated on March 11 and Stahl on March 13.

Kardasz and Stahl were friends of Spranger’s before she took office. They worked together to keep an eye on the county’s budget and raised issues with missing line items and budget deficits.

Smith said the board has offered to help Spranger transition into her new role and learn more about county operations.

“I don’t think she has taken advantage of the knowledge and expertise available to her in her own department and county to help her transition properly,” Smith said. “There’s a feeling that there’s a certain level of distrust there.”

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Twitter: @NicquelTerry