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Macomb clerk acts as own lawyer, insists she didn't violate court order

Former Macomb County Clerk Karen Spranger
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

A court hearing Wednesday highlighted ongoing dysfunction in the Macomb County clerk’s office.

Clerk Karen Spranger represented herself in a case brought by her employees who are members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Spranger is accused of violating a court order preventing her from harassing or retaliating against union employees who file grievances or engage in union business.

In this case, she put an AFSCME employee on administrative leave after an office dispute stemming from whether another employee should have been performing cashier duties in the clerk’s vital records division. The AFSCME employee had threatened to file a grievance.

Spranger told the court there were problems with “disharmony” among employees and an atmosphere where “people don’t respect each other,” especially with a number of unfilled vacancies leaving the clerk’s office chronically short-staffed. But she insists she didn’t violate the judge’s order in this case.

“I did not. I wasn’t there,” Spranger said. “I assessed [the incident], I investigated it. I only sent her home that day.”

But Karen Bathani, Macomb County’s director of human resources, testified that the incident fit a larger “pattern” coming out of Spranger’s office. She said there have been about 40 grievances filed against Spranger since she took over as clerk in January 2017.

Bathani said many of those employees were extremely “stressed…to the point where they were shaking [and] in tears. Many of them have commented that they are seeking medical treatment due to the toxic harassing environment in the clerk’s office.”

Bathani also said Spranger plays a role in leaving her office short-staffed.

“There are a handful of promotional opportunities that are on hold due to the clerk’s reluctance…or just her conflict with the labor agreements,” Bathani said. Also, “We have employees who are entitled to promotional opportunity due to a vacancy from either termination or retirement, [but] the county clerk doesn’t agree with the labor contract and therefore will not grant the promotion.”

Spranger responds that the county’s hiring system is slow and cumbersome. She wants more authority to hire and fire her own staffers.

That issue is the subject of several legal challenges Spranger faces from her own employees and other levels of county government. She also faces a lawsuit that accuses her of lying about her addresson the residency affidavit she filed to run for office. If she’s found guilty of that, she could be removed from office.

As for the question of whether she violated the court’s injunction meant to protect AFSCME employees, Spranger could be found in civil contempt of court. Macomb Circuit Judge Richard Caretti indicated he would issue a written ruling on that this week.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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