Should a city volunteer be told, 'You can't run for city council'? In Troy, he was fired.

Troy resident and city council candidate Ed Ross flashes a smile on May 6, 2024 at Troy City Hall, after turning in his firefighting gear. That followed Ross's termination by the fire chief from his volunteer firefighting position because he's running for office.
Troy resident and city council candidate Ed Ross flashes a smile on May 6, 2024 at Troy City Hall, after turning in his firefighting gear. That followed Ross's termination by the fire chief from his volunteer firefighting position because he's running for office.

In Michigan, there's a state law that says public employees must resign from their jobs if they win an election and wish to serve in that office.

But what about volunteers? And what about those who run for office but have yet to be elected?

Both of those questions arise from actions by the city of Troy. The city recently fired one of its volunteer firefighters, a 12-year resident who decided to run for office. This year is the second time that Ed Ross has run for Troy City Council. The first time he ran, last fall, the city threatened to fire him, but he protested, arguing that his volunteer status wasn’t covered by the city’s rule. And the city relented.

So Ross stayed in the race, polling a respectable 4,946 votes. Still, he lost to a candidate who received 5,600 votes, and thus won the election's last-place seat, in a council race of seven contenders for three seats. This year, Ross is running again. But this time, the city fired Ross from his volunteer position — on May 1 — shortly after he filed to run for office.

His firing came after city officials and the fire chief saw Ross lead an unsuccessful effort last year at unionizing the fire department. And it came after they heard him make statements during his first campaign that were critical of some city practices, calling them wasteful of tax dollars. Furthermore, his termination came after the city changed its rule, making it apply to volunteers — and, in particular, to him, Ross contends.

Last week, on May 16, Ross filed a “Complaint of Unlawful Political Retaliation” against the city, an unusual legal pleading lodged with the Michigan Office of Administrative Hearings and Rules in Lansing. Troy City Attorney Lori Grigg Bluhm said she thought Ross might file a conventional lawsuit. His complaint with a regulatory agency took her by surprise.

"I must say, in my 30 years of doing this, I've never seen one of these," Grigg Bluhm said on Friday. That was before, in fact, she'd had a chance actually to see the paperwork. Grigg Bluhm said it had seemed obvious all along that there would be a conflict of interest if Ross were to join the City Council while continuing to serve on the fire department, even in a volunteer position. On the council, he'd be voting on policies that directly affect the fire department, including compensation plans that include Troy's locally famed volunteer staff, Grigg Bluhm said.

"We have an incentive plan for the volunteers. They need 10 years of seniority and they have to show that they've made a certain number of runs, and qualified with all the training," she said. A reduction in that benefit last year was cause for a temporary uproar among the firefighters. Dozens of them, including Ross, appeared before the Troy City Council on April 17, 2023, to object to the benefit reduction. Still, Troy's councilmembers voted 7-0 to make the change, largely they said to comply with IRS rules.

Court decisions have supported local governments that forbid even volunteers from seeking elective office if those volunteers receive any form of compensation, Grigg Bluhm said. Then she added, referring to Ross: "But I'm not sure that his termination is solely related to his running for office." On that point, Ross agrees.

He believes he was fired in retaliation for what he'd been saying as a candidate and doing as a self-appointed union organizer. He believes that Troy amended its city rule about who can run for office just before firing him, to make his termination stick. A letter that Ross received at his termination meeting with Troy Fire Chief Peter Hullinger, and signed by Hullinger, states: "On March 27, 2024, the City of Troy released an updated version of Administrative Memo 1-P-23." Once that went out to firefighters, via email, that meant that Ross as a council candidate was suddenly in violation of that updated Administrative Memo 1-P-23, entitled "Regulation of Political Activity − City Personnel and Resources."

Ross declined to sign his termination statement but he did agree to turn in his considerable collection of firefighting gear. The firing has hurt his election chances, he said.

"All the firefighters support me but no one will put a sign out for me because they're afraid of being retaliated against," he said.

The election, on Aug. 6, is a special election, being held to fill the remaining three years of a vacancy created when former Troy councilmember Anne Erickson Gault left the council, shortly after being reelected last fall. Erickson Gault left because she was appointed by the Oakland County Board of Commissioners to fill its vacancy. Now, Ross is running against one opponent, who has the benefit of already being on the Troy City Council because he was appointed to fill the vacancy created when Erickson Gault left. He is Hirak Chanda, who ran last fall in the same election as Ross' first political try. Although Chanda didn't win a seat, he lost by the fewest votes — just 43, out of 36,804 cast. Thus, Chanda was appointed to fill Erickson Gault's spot, according to the Troy City Charter's rule for filling a vacancy until the time when a special election can be held.

It's unusual for a government unit to block an employee from running for office, said Ed Zelenak, the veteran in-house city attorney for Lincoln Park and the legal counsel for Southgate as well. What's usual is to follow state law, and most city charters do, Zelenak said. State law allows public employees to run for office and then, if and only if they're elected, requires that they make a choice: Either resign from the public job to serve in office or immediately quit the office to keep the job, Zelenak said.

In Lincoln Park, he said, "Our Councilmember Tobin was on the city recreation staff. She ran and won, so she had to give up her council position to keep her job. Then, she ran again, won again, and that time she resigned her job to become a councilmember." This year, Councilmember Maureen Tobin is running for Lincoln Park mayor, against incumbent Michael Higgins. The state law offers one additional but rarely used option: the employee "may be granted a leave of absence" from the public job, so as to serve in office, but that option relies on the employer offering the leave.

Ross has a family with an adult stepdaughter, and he works from home as a software developer. He has a four-year degree, from Wayne State University and a master's of business administration from a European university. Beyond that, he said he gained unusual insights from being a firefighter about how to improve Troy's public safety, including police and EMS, as well as the fire service. He said he's intent on running for office while he misses the tangible contribution of being a firefighter. Ross said he bought yard signs from a union printer in Pontiac, using the same blue and yellow as on the city's fire trucks.

"I think I have a shot at being elected but, if nothing else, I'll make people more informed," he said.

Contact Bill Laytner:

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Troy claims conflict of interest if firefighter runs for city council