ST. JOSEPH — The future of Jason Latham as director of the Berrien County Road Department is still in question, with county commissioners hiring an interim director during their virtual meeting Thursday, Feb. 11.
Latham was put on administrative leave last week for undisclosed reasons. He was hired as the director three years ago and was previously the southwest regional manager for the Michigan Department of Transportation.
Commissioner Mac Elliott, chairman of the county board of commissioners, said he could not comment on the situation out of respect for Latham’s privacy, and because of board policies and procedures.
Latham was unavailable for comment Thursday.
Commissioners approved hiring Neil Coulston as interim director. Coulston retired in 2011 as the public works director for Niles.
“Mr. Coulston has extensive public works experience, along with other service in the public sector,” Elliott said. “I’m confident that he’s well qualified to serve at interim road director until the administrative review is completed.”
Not everyone is happy with Latham being put on administrative leave.
Commissioner Dave Vollrath said that people in his district are concerned about how the “firing” of Latham has been handled.
“There’s a big concern with the supervisors in my district. I think that their concerns are warranted,” he said.
During the meeting, several letters of support for Latham from township officials were read into the record. Public participation in board meetings is limited to written correspondence due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hagar Township Supervisor Izzy DiMaggio said he worked with Latham for years, first when he was with MDOT and then when Latham started working for the county.
“He is a first class person, extremely knowledgeable about transportation, roads and every phase of the road department,” he said. “He has brought a professionalism to the position that had been sorely lacking.”
DiMaggio said he should know because he served on the Berrien County Road Commission before he resigned to become Hagar Township’s supervisor 11 years ago.
“The road commission was in such disarray – firings, resignations, incompetent leadership by the then board,” he said. “... It got so bad that the Berrien County Board of Commissioners voted to take the road department over as a county department. I supported this move.”
County commissioners dissolved the former semi-autonomous Berrien County Road Commission in September 2017. The road commission was governed by three appointed road commissioners, while the newly established road department is under the authority of the county commissioners, like other county departments.
Latham was the road department’s first permanent director.
DiMaggio said one of the main problems of the appointed road commission was that the road commissioners were trying to micromanage the department. And now, he said it appears that the county commissioners are trying to micromanage Latham.
“This is precisely what led to the problems that caused the dissolving of the former road commission board,” he said in his letter.
DiMaggio asked that they reconsider Latham’s administrative leave.
Benton Township Treasurer Debbie Boothby and Lincoln Township Supervisor Dick Stauffer also sent letters of support for Latham.
In addition, several workers with the road department signed a letter supporting Latham.
The letter stated that while Latham has been director, the percentage of county roads rated as fair or good has risen from 26 to 58 percent. They credited Latham’s creation of an asset management plan for the roads as the reason.
The letter continued: “The majority of the current road department staff members were employed under the road commission and experienced the instability of that work environment. Under Jason’s leadership, we feel stability that has not been experienced for many years. Jason’s mantra to his staff is, ‘I want to be the best road department in the state and the nation.’ We take pride in our work and our desire to support our director (who) drives us every day to fulfill that role. He has shown us a level of confidence and respect that has allowed us to achieve great things.”