The bonus that stirred up Lansing

The phone rang last week from a deeply embedded long-time source in the state bureaucracy.

“Did you know the state Civil Rights Commission has given a $24,700 bonus to the executive director?”

Of course, the reporter did not.

“They did it during a closed-door meeting and I thought you would want to know.”

Ya think.

It didn’t take long to confirm what the deeply embedded long-time source had revealed. It was real was the word from the Gov. Rick Snyder office, which was quick to point out it had nothing to do with it.

There were other juicy facts in addition to the 16 percent bonus number. The commission made the decision on Sept. 18 during a closed-door meeting, which was a violation of the state’s Open Meetings law. A flak for the commission dismissed this as an “inadvertent oversight” rather than calling it a mistake, which is what it really was.

And the bonus would be tacked on to Agustin Arbulu’s $152,000 a year salary. Nice work if you can get it.

Efforts to reach Mr. Arbulu on his personal cell number proved to be fruitless, but an outreach to the commission co-chair was successful and commissioner Rasha Demashkiek defended the bonus reporting that it was based on performance and his “extraordinary efforts” on behalf of the department. “It was over and above,” she reflected and she was “absolutely comfortable with the decision.”

She noted that the director had compiled an extensive report on the Flint water crisis in which civil rights violations were found. Plus he was “streamlining the department,” she explained by placing staff members in the urban communities making it easier for citizens to file complaints. “A lot of citizens don’t know we exist,” she suggests and this strategy of going local was a good one.

And as for the secret vote she reports “there were lots of lawyers around the table but they missed it.” She promised that the commission would re-enact the vote in public next month.

Well turns out there won’t be any public vote.

Once the story broke some state lawmakers checked in. One Democratic senator who has a ton of state employees in his backyard noted that none of them were getting a bonus and he not only thought the bonus was excessive, it was just down right wrong.

Then the senator who chairs the budget for the Civil Right department weighted in. Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland) wanted to know what programs the commission took the money from to fund the bonus and then he fired a shot that got everyone’s attention. It was a classic either/or.

“The next time they meet I would hope they would rescind the bonus,” the chair gently suggested and if they didn’t he would draft a “negative supplemental” which is budget-eeze for: I will take a “substantial” amount of money away from the panel. Mr. Stamas defended the work that the commission is doing to protect civil rights, but he thought that mission was more important than fattening the wallet of the leader.

Once this stuff got out, Mr. Arbulu broke his silence.

Now remember this decision was on Sept. 18 and almost one month to the day, Mr. Arbulu issued a statement, after the story on been on TV, radio and in print. He graciously thanks the commission for supporting his work, but he was declining the bonus so that the money could be used elsewhere.

That left one to ponder something he did not address in his statement: If it was the wrong thing to do, why didn’t he reject the bonus when they awarded it in September?

Maybe he thought it was a good idea?

Maybe he thought they were kidding?

Maybe he didn’t think it was enough?

Or maybe when the media sunshine got too hot to handle, he changed his mind?