Stivers received free pavilion rental from Ingham County Parks

Staff waived a $82 fee and possibly more; parks director knew but did not intercede

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TUESDAY, July 26 — Ingham County Commissioner Emily Stivers accepted special treatment from the county Parks Department, which waived an $82 fee to rent her a shelter last September for her son's birthday party, emails examined by City Pulse show.

The Parks Department director, Tim Morgan, was aware that two subordinates agreed to waive the fee, but he did not object, according to the email chain. Moreover, it appears Morgan also thought  — possibly  incorrectly — that they had also waived a $325 rental fee for an inflatable “bouncy house” and also voiced no objection.

Stivers did not seek the waiver, but she did not challenge it either.

Stivers is the liaison between the Commission and the Parks Department. She represents the 11th District, which includes Haslett. Her term expires Dec. 31, and she is not seeking reelection. Instead, she is running for the Democratic nomination for the state House of Representatives in the new 75th District in next Tuesday’s primary election. 

Stivers said she has done nothing wrong, calling the review of her ethical conduct “politically motivated.”

Stivers initiated the request on Aug. 19, 2021, in an email to Morgan that asked whom she should contact about renting a shelter at Lake Lansing North Park.

Stivers also wrote: “And, I see on the website that the bounce house and slide are not available after Labor Day, but I'm wondering if that rule might have a little flexibility since it's only one week later.”

In response, Morgan wrote an email he labeled “ Importance: High” to three department employees: Kelly Burkholder; the department’s office coordinator; Coe Emons, who manages Lake Lansing North and South parks; and Ian Londo,  Emons’ assistant. In the email, he asked Burkholder to “get her shelter rental taken care of.”

He added: I am sure Coe and Ian will make an exception for the blow-ups for our PC/County Commissioner.” “PC” stands for parks commissioner, an apparent reference to Stivers’ role as liaison.

The next day, Morgan wrote Stivers: “Kelly will be taking care or your request. Sure we can accommodate your request for inflatables. Birthdays were so much fun with the our Girls when they were that age" — Morgan inserted a smiley face icon here — "Enjoy!”

(A secondary page about rentals on the department’s website mentions that exceptions may be made for equipment rentals after Labor Day, but neither Stivers nor Morgan seemed to be aware of it, judging from their emails.)

The emails indicate that the Parks Department at first billed Stivers for the shelter and equipment rental, but then Stivers asked to change to a different shelter and eliminate the slide. An email from her to Burkholder said, “Sorry to put you to the trouble of revising the invoice!”

 Then, on Aug. 23, Burkholder wrote Emons an email with the subject called “FW: Shelter Rental” that said: "Hi Coe, Are you good with this or would you like me to offer the shelter at no charge? I wasn't planning on it, but if you say to I will.” There was no explanation in the emails why she asked. County officials who might know have not returned calls to City Pulse.

Emons’ reply by email that day was: “Yes, please at least offer it.”

The same day, Burkholder emailed Stivers: “Hi Emily, You are all set. Sandhill is reserved for September 12th all day for your party. I have attached two receipts for you. One for the shelter (Coe waived this fee) and one for the moonwalk. Let me know if you have any questions.”

Attached were two invoices. One showed a charge of $82 for the shelter had been reduced to zero. The other showed a charge of $325 for the “Moonwalk.”

In her emailed reply, Stivers did not ask why she was not being charged. Her only question was, “Curious, why does it have my husband's name as the addressee?”

Two days after the party, Board of Commissioners Chair Bryan Crenshaw reached out to Morgan through Becky Bennett, the board's director, to ask what fees were waived for Stivers. The party came to Crewnshaw's attention on Facebook. Morgan told Bennett that $407 had been waived: $82 for the shelter and $325 for the “Moonwalk.”

County officials did not return emails or phone calls seeking clarification on whether there was a full waiver of all costs, as implied in the email by Morgan, or it was just the $82 pavilion rental. 

Crenshaw referred the matter to County Attorney Matt Norford. Emails from Norford to Stivers were not released by the county because of “attorney client privilege” under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Stivers voluntarily released the emails last week to City Pulse. An attorney from the Michigan Press Association who reviewed at City Pulse’s request said the contents that were disclosed do not meet the criteria of attorney client privilege. 

The emails reveal Norford merely facilitated getting Stivers to pay the full amount for the shelter and equipment rentals.

That was in the beginning of October. Stivers provided a receipt  to Ingham County showing the rentals were paid. 

Although she has paid, she may have run afoul of the county’s ethics policy, which, ironically, she had ushered through county committees to adoption.

“Commissioners must not use their influence to obtain personal benefits,” the policy reads in part. “Commissioners should be careful not to place employees in positions where they face confusion between a Commissioner’s public and private roles.”

“I helped write that policy,” Stivers told City Pulse. “I did not violate it.”

Stivers’ opponents in next week’s election, Don Keskey and Penelope Tsernoglou, declined to comment. The new district includes Meridian Township, eastern Ingham County and parts of both Clinton and Shiawassee counties.

In a separate incident involving Stivers that City Pulse reported last week, Stivers was challenged by Crenshaw for distributing invitations to a campaign fundraiser while awaiting the start of a meeting of the Commission in the county courthouse. That also apparently violated the county ethics policy, which prohibits campaigning in and around county buildings and property. Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, who said she witnessed it, said it also violated state campaign finance laws. 

Violations of the ethics policy require the Commission chair to empanel an ethics panel or refer an ethics violation to the Committee on General Services. Because Stivers chaired that committee, Crenshaw should have referred the violations to a panel. He didn’t. 

After City Pulse shared the emails with Crenshaw, he acknowledged Stivers’ behavior related to the park rental fees “did rise to the level of an ethics panel. I absolutely do think this is a violation.” But he said with Stivers stepping down, regardless of the outcome of the Aug. 2 primary, he is not interested in “opening old wounds” and putting together an ethics panel to investigate the case. 

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