Our editorial: What’s Macomb to do with clerk?

The Detroit News

This spring, we shared our concerns regarding Macomb County clerk Karen Spranger’s performance — or lack thereof. At that time, we said she must improve. Months later, there are no signs that’s happened and only mounting proof of her incompetence.

But the challenge remains: What to do about it? For good reason, it’s tough to overturn the choice of the people. Removing an elected official is hard, and there aren’t many options for doing so. Other county officials, however, are certainly looking into what possibilities are available.

Spranger was elected last November, a Republican carried in on the wave that put President Donald Trump in office. She was unqualified for the role, and now the citizens of Macomb are dealing with the consequences.

“There’s a very real possibility we may be operating without a functioning clerk for the next three years,” says county Commissioner Leon Drolet, also a Republican. “It’s become beyond dysfunctional.”

The clerk’s office is a department most people don’t spend much time thinking about. That’s because when the office is run well, it doesn’t draw attention to itself.

Now, residents are annoyed about the lack of service and Spranger’s many screw-ups. Recently, the Macomb County Circuit Court’s head judge sent Spranger a letter demanding she reduce a sizable backlog of court filings.

“This backlog is problematic for our judges that rely on these bundles being processed timely,” Judge James Biernat wrote.

The judge also pointed to months-old backlogs in processing criminal history reports, among other shortfalls.

Part of the problem is Spranger’s office is currently short-staffed — largely because her poor leadership is driving away qualified employees.

Some of the positions have been vacant for months. Three months after taking office, she fired her deputy clerk and another employee (they had complained about Spranger’s performance) and was consequently sued. And in addition to violating ethics provisions, she’s become embroiled in several other legal battles with county employees and officials, including county Executive Mark Hackel.

Spranger is good at creating chaos, but not so good at doing her job.

Yet to remove her would be difficult. A citizen-led recall is hard to pull off and expensive. Another option would be for the governor, working in conjunction with the attorney general, to remove her. But that’s even more rare and requires clear proof of misconduct or willful neglect of duty.

Drolet says other options would include appealing to the Legislature to write legislation targeted specifically to this case, while building in safeguards to protect the democratic process.

He also says commissioners are looking to an old, largely unknown state law that allows elected officials to demand administrators, including clerks, offer a report under oath when requested. If Spranger does not comply, she could potentially be removed.

If nothing else, this situation is a good reminder to choose elected officials carefully.