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Sartorial sarcasm

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It's not often that the Oakland County Board of Commissioners is praised for its wardrobe, but last week, at the board's first meeting of 2006, Taxpayers United chairman Bill McMaster opened the public comment period by referring to the collective duds of the 25-member board.

"I note the Oakland County Board of Commissioners starts the New Year dressed a little better than last year," he told the group. "That's probably because of the sneaky pay raise you gave yourselves effective Jan. 1 of this year."

McMaster is talking about the 2 percent increase the board gave itself in October 2005 by amending an already approved budget for fiscal 2006-07, essentially bypassing public comment. This little chunk of change followed a 3 percent pay raise approved a year earlier. The average salary for board members is now about $32,000 per year, which includes fully paid benefits — not bad for part-time work. The more controversial "leadership raises" giving $10,000 extra to Commission Chairman Bill Bullard Jr. (R-Holly), plus an additional $5,000 for the board's vice chairperson and majority and minority leaders, were later rescinded after causing too much of a public stink.

But what McMaster says particularly steams his beans is the way the raises were approved. Pay hikes passed through budget amendments, he says, are a violation of Michigan's Open Meetings Act. McMaster filed a complaint late last year with the county prosecutor's office, which — surprise — didn't bite. They gave the case to the State Police, who told McMaster they saw no grounds for prosecution. The board, for its part, says the allegations are hogwash.

"The state police said they saw no wrongdoing," says Commissioner David Coulter (D-Ferndale). "[McMaster] is welcome to criticize the raise, but it was done at a board meeting in front of the public."

But voting for something in front of the public is not the same as holding a public comment session, McMaster says. He says he's now discussing legal strategy with a private litigation lawyer who specializes in cases dealing with the Open Meetings Act.

McMaster's fashion critique did not amuse Commissioner Chuck Moss (R-Birmingham), who called it a cheap shot. "The last time McMaster saw us was during a casual-dress day," he said, one held in conjunction with a fundraiser benefiting a sick colleague. So for the record: The OC Board of Commissioners always dresses nice, except when it's helping co-workers.

Besides clothes, there was also music. Members of the Lake Orion High School band opened the meeting with their renditions of "The Star Spangled Banner" and their own school fight song. Republican Commissioner Eric Wilson, who oversees Orion Township and presented the band, said the set list had been a subject of debate with County Exec L. Brooks Patterson, also in attendance. "I told Brooks 'Hail to the Chief' was not appropriate," Wilson joked.

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