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Court to decide this week if Macomb clerk violated order

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Mount Clemens — A Macomb Circuit Court  judge said Wednesday he'll issue a written opinion later this week on whether controversial County Clerk Karen Spranger, who represented herself at the hearing, violated his order that forbids her from retaliating against or harassing union employees.

The hearing, which lasted about 5 1/2 hours, stems from a complaint by one of the unions that represents employees in two divisions of the County Clerk's Office, the Register of Deeds and Vital Records.

Judge Richard Caretti said he would issue a decision this week, but first he admonished and corrected the county clerk for inexperience in defending herself, including her use of witnesses, and her cell phone, which he ordered confiscated until after court.

Officials for AFSCME Local 411 allege that Spranger and her deputy clerk violated the union's collective bargaining rights when it put an employee, who is a union steward, on a paid administrative leave after the worker said she could file a grievance against the clerk for having a supervisor perform union  work. Lawyers for the union, the employee and Spranger said the alleged incident happened on Nov. 17.

Bruce Miller, an attorney with Detroit law firm Miller Cohen PLC and who is representing one of the unions, AFSCME Local 411, said in court Wednesday that the incident happened hours after a hearing in which Carretti granted the union an injunction that forbade the county clerk from retaliating against or harassing union employees.

"Right after the hearing about the injunction on Nov. 17, the employee returned to work and found a supervisor doing bargaining unit work," Miller said. "She advised the supervisor it was improper ... the supervisor reported it to the deputy clerk, who then came down on her like a ton of bricks."

Miller told the judge they are seeking the reinstatement of the employee i and legal costs.

Spranger defended her office from the allegations and said there was a confrontation between the employee and a supervisor, and that she diffused the situation by sending the employee home for the day.

However, there has been confusion about when the employee was to return back to work.

After testimony from both sides, Caretti ruled the employee could return to work immediately.

Spranger represented herself in the hearing. Carretti often had to instruct Spranger on matters of law and procedure in the court. At one point, an alert went off on her cell phone and the judge had the sheriff's deputy in the courtroom confiscate it.

He also admonished her for returning to court late from lunch. Caretti adjourned the proceedings for lunch at 12:35 p.m. with instructions to return in 30 minutes. Spranger didn't return to court until after 1:30 p.m. She said she left the building to go to her office and said she normally gets an hour for lunch.

Caretti also dressed her down because she told the court she planned to call four of her employees to testify but they left during the lunch break and didn't return until a sheriff's deputy was sent to retrieve them from their office in another building in downtown Mount Clemens.

Spranger described the hearing as intense.

"This is my first experience in representing myself in a court matter," she said. "It was an experience."

She said her argument that as the county clerk, she has the right to make decisions about the operation of her office  and that the union was attempting to take that right away was well grounded.

"This dispute or disagreement has escalated to a level that's out of control," she said.

Spranger, a Republican who has never held political office, upset Democratic candidate Fred Miller, a former state representative and county commissioner, in the November 2016 election. She makes $108,880 a year as Macomb County's clerk and register of  deeds.

Since taking office, she has been embroiled in a series of political fights.

After three months on the job, she fired her deputy clerk and another at-will employee and was subsequently sued.

She has clashed with the county workers' union over work rules for 85 employees she supervises and came under fire when she attempted to block the moving of her offices and workers into another building — a plan which had been in the works for months prior to her election. Her spat with the county over the move prompted it to file a lawsuit against her that was eventually settled.

Spranger also was fined by the county Ethics Committee for violating provisions of the use of the county computer system by non-county workers.

Hours after the fine was leveled against her, Roseville police cited Spranger for a crash involving her county-issued vehicle. Police said Spranger rear-ended another car stopped at an intersection.

In June, Spranger sued Macomb County to have the “no firearm zone” status removed from the two buildings that house her county offices. She’s also seeking redress and an injunction against perceived wrongs by county officials against her. She claims Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and other county officials are interfering with her management of her office.

The county filed a counterclaim on Aug. 1, seeking to remove Spranger from office because she allegedly falsified her residency in paperwork filed in her bid for public office.

Earlier this week, a judge ruled the county's counterclaim against Spranger may proceed in court. Because the Macomb County Circuit Court is one of the parties requesting relief in the case, the matter is being heard by St. Clair County Circuit Court Judge David Kelly to avoid a conflict of interest. It's not clear when the judge will rule on the matter.

Also Monday, the county filed a lawsuit seeking a court order to compel Spranger to perform her duties as clerk, including processing legal filings used by the county’s courts and law enforcement agencies. Earlier this month, Macomb County Circuit Court chief judge James Biernat told Spranger to immediately address a growing backlog of filings and processing, but the backlog has only gotten worse, officials said.

On Thursday, Spranger is scheduled to appear before the Macomb County Board of Commissioners to give a report on her offices' budget during the body's regularly scheduled 3 p.m. full board meeting, officials said.