CENTERVILLE — The St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday agreed to begin the process to remove Mark Lillywhite from sheriff’s office.
By a vote of 6-1, the commissioners approved a motion by Commissioner Jared Hoffmaster requesting that a complaint be registered with Governor Gretchen Whitmer, intending to have Lillywhite removed from office.
The motion came near the end of the meeting and after Lillywhite herself appeared before the seven-member panel to provide an update on the sheriff’s department. During his 3 1/2 minute presentation, Lillywhite highlighted nearly a dozen situations involving the sheriff’s department since the beginning of the year. Examples he cited include drug raids, gun seizures, life-saving first aid administration, missing person assistance, and department employee awards.
Lillywhite concluded his report and left the stage. As he left the room, board chairman Ken Malone asked if Lillywhite would please stay for questions. Lillywhite maintained his pace, replied “I’m done” and took off.
Malone was clearly stunned and took nearly half a minute to regroup.
“I’m glad to see Mark appear. I hadn’t seen him in months and I would have liked the opportunity to ask questions due to circumstances,” Malone said. “Unfortunately, we’re not going to get that chance.”
The commissioners continued with the rest of their meeting, but the conversation returned to Lillywhite during “Commissioner Comments” time at the end of the meeting’s agenda.
Commissioner Rick Shaffer said in an unusually somber manner that he appreciates Lillywhite’s response to the committee’s request to appear before them on Tuesday. Still, he said Lillywhite’s appearance was far from impressive.
“As a commissioner and as the voice of my constituents, I heard nothing more than a burst of news,” Shaffer said. “I was disappointed not to hear any comments about his leadership and undertakings over the past few months, and I find it extremely disappointing that, although he was here tonight, he was not able to stay long enough for some comments.”
Shaffer had more to say.
“I am very disappointed. I am very disappointed that he is sticking to the mantra of sheriff, but is not visible in the required roles and responsibilities,” he added. “I think it is better to leave it at that.”
Hoffmaster followed Shaffer and began a comprehensive analysis of the situation. Hoffmaster said he didn’t take credit for criticizing Lillywhite as the two have been friends for years.
Still, Hoffmaster said Lillywhite owes the public the courtesy of an apology and an explanation.
“People make mistakes and I think everyone in this room understands that. I made mistakes. But… part of the way to get back on track is to admit you made a mistake — which I have yet to hear (from Lillywhite) — and make amends for that mistake,” Hoffmaster said. “This is not compensation for the mistake he made. For him to even put us in this position, to be honest, upsets me.
“I can’t go to my kids and say, ‘Yeah, it’s okay that you don’t come to work to do the job you’ve been entrusted with,’ Hoffmaster added. “There are a lot of questions that could be asked of Mark. and unfortunately he’s not here to answer them, and I find that very disappointing.”
Hoffmaster was referring to Lillywhite who currently has a full-time job at a factory in Three Rivers. Hoffmaster said he is stunned that Lillywhite, 48, would do such a thing and not step down as sheriff.
“He can come back and be our sheriff… or he can resign or he can retire. But the problem is to have a full-time job somewhere else, collect a full paycheck, and then also have our county taxpayers pay a full-time sheriff while our undersheriff takes on 100% of the (sheriff’s) responsibility, getting of no credit and is not paid for it. That surprises me.”
Hoffmaster paused and then made the motion that could potentially end Lillywhite’s more than three-year role as sheriff.
“I suggest we file a complaint with the governor and ask that Sheriff Mark Lillywhite be removed from office, in accordance with MCL 168.207,” Hoffmaster said.
Commissioners have rightly stated that because Lillywhite is an elected official, they have no power or authority to remove him from office. With Lillywhite apparently choosing not to step down, the only options are to remove him from office through Whitmer or through a recall.
County officials said a recall would cost St. Joseph County, its 16 townships, six villages and two cities combined as much as $100,000. Malone said in retrospect that appealing to Whitmer is the wisest option for the county to pursue.
The correspondence with Whitmer will be prepared by the county’s legal representative and will likely be sent before the end of August, Malone said.
Malone noted that he asked Lillywhite back in March what he planned to do regarding his role as sheriff. Malone said Lillywhite then indicated to him that he intended to resign.
Lillywhite, a resident of Flowerfield Township, remains on the payroll, even though Deputy Sheriff Jason Bingaman has assumed sheriff duties since Lillywhite’s February arrest in Kalamazoo County for drunk driving.
Lillywhite’s salary is $105,000. His term as sheriff expires at the end of 2024.
Lillywhite was sentenced to a year’s probation in April after pleading guilty to two counts of operating under the influence and carrying a concealed weapon while under the influence of alcohol. State police said Lillywhite’s blood alcohol content was 0.25 percent.
During his sentencing in Kalamazoo County, Lillywhite apologized to the people in a car that ran his county-issued vehicle from behind, and to the police and fire department who responded to the incident.
“I also want to apologize to the citizens I represent and to the people who work in the St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Department,” he said at the April 24 sentencing. “I let them down.”
County Administrator Teresa Doehring said the county’s insurance company issued the county a check for more than $30,000 for the vehicle that Lillywhite totaled in the Feb. 26 crash on US 131, south of Schoolcraft.
This article originally appeared in Sturgis Journal: Commissioners Start Process to Remove Lillywhite from Sheriff’s Office