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Macomb County's new Clerk can't stay out of trouble

Macomb Daily
Macomb County Clerk/Register of Deeds Karen Spranger, prior to her election

Macomb County's new Clerk is a political neophyte who has stumbled into controversy after controversy since she took office five months ago. 

But there may not be a whole lot the county can do about it.

Karen Spranger was an anti-government activist before she was elected on the coattails of Donald Trump. She'd sometimes pull stunts, like wearing a tinfoil-covered suit at local government meetings to protest utility smart meters.
Now, she is the government. And the transition is not going well.

At a recent meeting of the county commissioners, AFSCME Local 411 President Donna Cangemi complained that Spranger started threatening and bullying union employees almost on day one. The new clerk accused them of incompetence and threatened their jobs.

"I've been a union officer for 20 years," said a grim Cangemi. "I've never seen anything like this. My members have not been able to sleep, they've been taking medications -- because of the workplace caused by Miss Spranger."

Cangemi spoke in opposition to Spranger's request that the county pay for a private attorney for her.

Spranger wants a county-paid attorney so she can sue the county, for not letting her fire union employees under the protection of labor contracts.

Spranger stumbled through a written presentation at the meeting, repeatedly mispronouncing words, such as "precevously," instead of "previously," as she tried to justify her request before a confused and frustrated Board of Commissioners.

Not surprisingly, the Commissioners voted no. To be sure, they had dealt with messes of Spranger's before.  
In her first month, she let friends use county work computers. For that, she temporarily lost computer privileges and was fined (by the Commission) for an ethics violation. 

In month two, Macomb County Human Resources sent her a letter demanding she stop creating a hostile workplace.  

In her third month, she fired the two employees who blew the whistle on her computer ethics slip. Now she and the county are being sued by the fired workers.  

Month four, Spranger rear-ended someone while driving a county-owned car. Also that month, she called 9-1-1 on a reporter trying to get a comment for a story.

Now it's a few days into her fifth month.

After failing to stop an already-in-progress move of vital records and register of deeds to a new building, Spranger was caught on camera hiding the moving boxes that workers needed to start packing -- although she later claimed people had misunderstood why she took the boxes. 

Says Bob Smith, the Democratic Chairman of the County Commission, "It's almost comical in a strange way, but at the same time, I don't think people realize the potential problem that this is leading to."

Smith says so far, long-time workers at the Clerk's office have kept the chaos from affecting residents of the county, but he fears that can't last forever. He says commissioners were rebuffed when they reached out to Spranger to try to help her.

Kim Meltzer, a Republican, is the Clerk for Clinton Township, which is in Macomb County. She says it appears Spranger is in over her head. She had to help Spranger decide what voting machines the county should order.  

This is one of the most basic things a county clerk is supposed to do.

"I sent out a survey," says Meltzer. "It probably should have come from her, but I just don't know that she knew how to make that happen, so I took it upon myself to contact all the clerks in Macomb County asking them what vendor would you prefer."

Meltzer blames straight ticket voting for the mess. Maybe voters wouldn't have elected someone so unqualified if they'd had to fill in a circle next to her name, she thinks.

But, now that the damage has been done, "we have to find a way to make this work," says Republican Commissioner Leon Drolet.

Drolet says the state's new recall law makes it almost impossible to boot someone from office without a well-funded campaign using paid signature gatherers. Recalls also can't be launched in the first or last year of someone's elected term. 

He hopes county officials that Spranger has fought with keep offering olive branches.

"If we can make some breakthroughs in cooperation," says Drolet, "even if it requires the patience of a saint, then I think we're all better off for it."

So far, Spranger has averaged at least one major conflict or scandal per month in office. There are 44 months to go in her term.

Everyone hopes things get better.

Aside from a recall, the only other way to get her out would be a resignation - or a removal hearing by the Governor for misconduct.


Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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