Opinion: Ouimet's improper receipt of taxpayer dollars should disqualify him in state House race
The attempted defense of Mark Ouimet’s improper receipt of per diems (meeting fees) and mileage reimbursements, offered by Washtenaw GOP Chairman Mark Boonstra and Vice Chairman Wyckham Selig, was riddled with factual misstatements and irrelevant and specious arguments.
The issue is simple: Did Ouimet ask for and receive thousands of dollars in per diem payments (not reimbursements), plus mileage reimbursements, that he was not entitled to receive under the rules of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, rules that he voted to approve every year for the last six years? The answer is clearly “Yes.”
“When Washtenaw County commissioners attend a meeting on behalf of the county, they are entitled to receive a $25 fee.” This is false. Commissioners are not entitled to a fee for every meeting they attend that deals with county business; they receive salaries for most of that. They are entitled to fees, over and above their salaries, only for specified meetings of the Board of Commissioners, itself, and its committees. They are also entitled to fees for attending meetings of other specified boards, commissions and committees of the County, but only if they have been formally appointed to serve on those bodies.
Ouimet went far beyond those rules, claiming fees for showing up almost anywhere he felt like, and calling it county business. He collected fees for attending meetings of township boards, to which he certainly wasn’t appointed - often for just a few minutes - for discussions with county employees, for talking to the newspaper, for going to a county employee breakfast.
Boonstra and Wyckham claim, incredibly, that “a high level of expenses demonstrates that a commissioner is working hard.”
First of all, we are not talking about “expenses.” Of the $35,000 Ouimet put in for and was paid, $26,000 of it was extra pay, not reimbursement of expenses. It was extra money that he had to spend on anything he liked.
Second, even if we accept the unsupported claim that Ouimet “worked harder,” that doesn’t give him the right to get paid for things that the rules don’t allow.
Is there any evidence that Ouimet worked harder? Absolutely, not. Neither he, nor the other commissioners, keep timesheets. Other commissioners may have worked just as hard, but they didn’t ask for extra pay for every meeting they attended or every discussion they had relating to the county. All that we know for sure is that Ouimet got paid a lot more than any of the other commissioners.
Ouimet says that he gave all the money to charity, but we have nothing but his word on that. Not that it matters. Taking money that doesn’t belong to you isn’t OK if you give it to your favorite charity. Look at it this way: The county clerk says that Ouimet wasn’t entitled to collect the $25 fees for 51 percent of the 989 meetings he put in for, a total of 504 meetings, over five years. If Ouimet came into the Washtenaw County Treasurer’s office 504 times, took $25 out of the cash drawer each time, and gave it to his favorite charity, would that be OK?
Boonstra and Wyckham try to distract from Ouimet’s unjustified receipt of this money by talking about expenses Democratic commissioners received for attending conferences and meetings outside the county. Those expenses have nothing to do with the issue at hand. First of all, what they are complaining about are reimbursements of actual expenses incurred, not the extra pay that Ouimet received.
Second, while the two GOP officials would have voters believe that all of these trips were useless junkets, they have provided no evidence of that. Most importantly, while Ouimet’s collection of extra pay clearly violated the commissioners’ own rules, there is no evidence that any of the travel reimbursement was improper.
Moreover, the Democratic travel expense amounts being talked about are trivial, compared to Ouimet’s receipts. Accepting Boonstra and Wyckham’s figure that the nine Democratic commissioners, as a group, received an average of $8,658 for each of the last three two-year terms, the total for all nine would be $25,974. Ouimet, by himself, collected $25,925 in meeting fees, alone, plus mileage, over the same six years.
For the five years 2005-2009, Ouimet received a total of $32,805 in per diems fees and mileage, an average of $6,561 a year. Over the same period, the nine Democratic commissioners currently serving received an average of $1,678 per year. Even if you add their out-of-county travel reimbursements, the average is just $2,231 per year, about a third of Ouimet’s.
The real issue here isn’t who is a more spendthrift commissioner. The question is whether Mark Ouimet should be promoted to the office of state representative next week. The answer is a clear “No.”
Ann Arbor resident Thomas F. Wieder is an attorney who retired from active practice in 2003. He continues to do pro bono work, primarily for the American Civil Liberties Union.