County Commissioner returns to re-election campaign after resignation

Monday, October 31, 2016 - 7:58pm

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After resigning as county commissioner amid concerns of a conflict of interest, then abruptly re-entering a election race for the seat, Conan Smith (D–District 9) is facing widespread disaffection from segments of his constituency.

However, even some of his critics admit it will be unlikely for him to lose re-election because of the amount of straight-ticket Democratic voting expected on Election Day.

Smith originally resigned as commissioner in August after Mary Morgan, former publisher of the Ann Arbor Chronicle and executive director of the CivCity Initiative, a nonprofit based in Ann Arbor dedicated to increasing civic engagement in the community, sent a letter to the Board of Commissioners alerting them that Smith’s pursuit of a job as director of the county’s Office of Community and Economic Development represented a conflict of interest. Commissioners have the potential to influence the hiring decisions of the county’s full-time staff.

Because Smith’s resignation came after the July deadline to withdraw from the ballot and followed his victory in his uncontested Democratic primary election, it was too late for others to file for independent or Republican campaigns against him on the November ballot, though several individuals have chosen to run as write-in candidates.

Citing the controversy surrounding his pursuit of the county job, Smith took himself out of consideration for the OCED position on Oct. 13 and stated his intention to pursue re-election as commissioner of his district instead.

He faces a write-in challenge from public relations professional Jen Eyer (D–District 9) — who was appointed to serve as interim commissioner following Smith’s departure — as well as several other candidates. Only Smith’s name will be on next Tuesday’s ballot.

In an interview, Smith pointed out that he did not violate any state guidelines, saying he sought the OCED job to better the living conditions of county residents. He compared his pursuit of an administrative position in a body he represents as an elected official to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s choice to accept a nomination to be Secretary of State while a U.S. senator.

“I took an extraordinary step in resigning my seat in order to make sure there was no even potential conflict of interest. I was doing extra work to ensure that the ethical standards that our community holds were adhered to,” Smith said. “It happens all through government, you see people leaving their elected positions to take on jobs inside county government, city government, township government.”

Speaking to his current campaign for the seat, Smith said he intends to use his position as commissioner to make county resources more accessible to residents and fight economic inequality. He cited his previous efforts in region-wide coordination of services and shaping the Regional Transit Authority ballot proposal.

Local resident Jeff Hayner, one of the write-in candidates opposing Smith, said Smith’s conduct had been disingenuous, though he noted his opponent was likely to win.

“He had the luxury of turning his back on the people he’s supposed to represent for a couple months, forcing the rest of the board to appoint an interim successor, knowing that he’ll get re-elected in November because of straight-ticket voting,” Hayner said.

In an interview, Eyer was hesitant to discuss her opponent’s conduct, focusing on her platform to improve access to public services and combat inequality in the county.

“I can’t pretend to know what was in Conan’s head,” Eyer said. “I don’t know at what point he made decisions or what the timeline was. I feel like it’s not my place to second-guess those decisions. I will say the net result was a confusing situation for everybody involved but I can only focus on my campaign and what my standards and conduct will be.”

She acknowledged the difficulty write-in candidates face in being elected due to greater straight-ticket voting in presidential election years. However, she emphasized that she is running a “robust campaign,” and has raised $1,500 for her campaign as of Oct. 24, according to state financial disclosure forms.

Ann Arbor resident Judy Foy, who said she has largely agreed with Smith’s agenda as commissioner, noted that his handling of the OCED issue disappointed her. Foy also expressed disappointment about a lack of awareness on the issue.

“I understand even when you have great intentions but are still not aware how the process should move, you can lose a great deal of credibility,” Foy said. “It’s kind of sad how many people don’t know about this situation, he’ll just be the name on the ballot.”

Vivienne Armentrout — a local blogger and former county commissioner who defeated Smith in the 2002 Democratic primary — declined to discuss whether she believed Smith’s behavior has been ethical. However, she was more optimistic that Smith’s write-in opponents could win, saying she planned to write in Eyer on the ballot.

“A lot of people familiar with local politics are familiar with Conan Smith’s background and performance,” Armentrout said.