TOWER—A longstanding, and apparently unauthorized, monthly payment to former Tower Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith, was a brief subject of discussion with the city’s auditor at Monday …
TOWER—A longstanding, and apparently unauthorized, monthly payment to former Tower Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith, was a brief subject of discussion with the city’s auditor at Monday night’s city council meeting here.
Keith, who served as clerk-treasurer from 2013 until her dismissal last July, began paying herself $45 monthly from city funds shortly after assuming the clerk’s position. The payment, which was in addition to her regular city wages, was variously coded as “fire department head pay” and later as “wastewater meeting pay.”
Current Clerk-Treasurer Victoria Ranua first discovered the extra payments in January, after she began the process of recoding the city’s payroll for improved efficiency and greater transparency.
Ranua questioned the basis for the payments and after her review of minutes from both the city council and the Tower-Breitung Wastewater Board going back several years revealed no motion authorizing the extra pay to Keith, she prepared and submitted her concerns about the payments to the state auditor and the county attorney’s office in February. The county attorney forwarded the matter to County Sheriff Ross Litman, who referred it to the Breitung Police for investigation. In her email to the county attorney, Ranua noted that public officials have a legal obligation to report possible unauthorized expenditures of public funds.
Breitung Police Chief Dan Nylund acknowledged this week that his investigation found no evidence in any minutes that the city council had ever authorized the payments to Keith, which was the primary concern raised by Ranua. Under state law, it is a misdemeanor, at minimum, to expend public funds without proper authorization. Despite that, Nylund dismissed Ranua’s concerns in a police report that he produced in late April. In it, Nylund said he reviewed minutes of both the wastewater board and the city council and spoke with four current or past members of the wastewater board. One member, a Breitung supervisor, thought the payments to Keith were for her attendance at meetings, while another recognized that the wastewater board paid the city of Tower for staff time. A former member couldn’t remember whether the payments were authorized and a fourth member declined to give a statement.
From these inconsistent statements, Nylund concluded: “After reviewing all statements and documents no evidence of malice or deceit to deceive the City of Tower $45 per meeting by Keith was found.”
Nylund, in his report, cites minutes from the wastewater board that authorize payments, ranging from $200-$245 per month, from the wastewater board to the city of Tower. Those payments reflect the fact that city hall staff do spend time on wastewater board matters (including more than attending meetings) and that the city of Tower pays their wages for that time. The payments from the wastewater board are meant to recoup that expense for the city.
The wastewater board is an entirely separate joint powers board with representation from both the city and the township.
In her complaint, Ranua noted that the wastewater board maintains its own separate financial accounts and hires and pays its own employees. And it pays its board members $45 per meeting. The wastewater board, however, never approved any such payments for Keith, since she was not a member of the board and was presumably already being compensated as part of her city wages for the time she spent in meetings.
Ranua noted in her report to the county attorney that the previous clerk-treasurer, Ann Lamppa, had not been paid the extra $45 for the time she spent in wastewater board meetings. Nor did deputy clerk Terri Joki-Martin receive the extra pay when she assumed the wastewater board meeting duties in January of 2019. Instead, as city payroll records confirm, Keith continued to pay herself the $45 per month coded as wastewater meeting pay even though she no longer attended the meetings. Ranua noted that the monthly payments continued for more than five years, totaling $2,970 during that period.
Nylund, in his April report, never explained his lack of concern over the payments, given that he acknowledged finding no clear authorization for the disbursement of the city funds to Keith. However, in response to a question from the Timberjay this week, Nylund indicated that the fact that members of the city council signed the payroll vouchers provided the legal foundation for the payments.
Ranua concedes that the payroll vouchers submitted by Keith each month were signed by city council members, yet in her original email to the county attorney, Ranua noted that the paycheck that Keith had received did not list a source of funds, but merely lumped all sources together, making it very difficult for anyone signing the voucher to recognize the additional payments. “She could have easily coded it to indicate the type of pay being received, as I am currently doing, but did not,” wrote Ranua in her February email. “The voucher listed only the lumped amount, it never called out the wastewater pay separately.”
Ranua had noted that a member of the council would have had to examine Keith’s union contract, which spells out her base pay, in order to recognize that the former clerk-treasurer was receiving the extra payment. “The voucher signers were thus unaware that an additional amount was being paid to the employee,” Ranua had noted in her original email.
Like most city employees at the time, Keith was covered under a union contract that spelled out in precise terms, her compensation. Nylund acknowledged that he never reviewed the union agreement for a possible explanation of the additional payment. The Timberjay did review the union agreement and found no mention of the $45 monthly payment.