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County commission seeks removal of sheriff

St. Joseph County Sheriff Mark Lillywhite (center) makes a brief presentation on the state of the sheriff’s department during Tuesday’s St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners meeting. Commissioners approved drafting a complaint letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to possibly remove Lillywhite from office Tuesday. (COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON)

Article updated 7:24 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 16

By Robert Tomlinson
News Director

CENTREVILLE — St. Joseph County commissioners made a monumental move Tuesday, approving the drafting of a complaint to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer seeking the removal of Mark Lillywhite as the county’s sheriff.

The nearly unprecedented move comes after Lillywhite made a brief appearance at Tuesday’s St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners meeting, his first public appearance since he pled guilty to drunk driving charges in Kalamazoo County Eighth District Court in April.

County Commission Chair Ken Malone said after the meeting the complaint to the governor’s office would be sent in the next couple of weeks. Initiating a complaint such as this is the lone way the county commission can request the removal of an elected county official; they cannot do it by themselves.

“Our attorney will give us a proper letter so it’s in the right format, we’ll give that to the governor letting her make a decision if she would intercede on behalf of St. Joseph County and remove him or not,” Malone said.

The vote to approve drafting a letter was 6-1, with Fourth District Commissioner Luis Rosado the lone dissenter.

Malone said Lillywhite was invited recently, via a letter sent Aug. 4, to give a report to the county on the Sheriff’s Department and how it was running, in hopes of having a discussion with him about the situation regarding his job and his leadership of the department. The letter, obtained by the Commercial-News, specifically requested Lillywhite report on “your performance of the duties of your office,” and if he did not appear, the board would “determine whether it believes that you have willfully neglected the duties of your office and, therefore, whether to initiate a complaint with the Governor asking that you be removed from office.” The decision to request Lillywhite’s appearance, Malone said, was made after a recent closed session the commission had.

Undersheriff Jason Bingaman has been the point person for the department ever since Lillywhite’s arrest back in February.

Lillywhite showed up to give his report on the department, which lasted three and a half minutes and consisted solely of the high-profile incidents, investigations, accolades and projects the department has been involved in during the last several months, a report that Second District Commissioner Rick Shaffer after the fact described as “a regurgitation of the news.”

After saying that those events showed that the office was “running smoothly,” Lillywhite abruptly left the commission room and the building, even after commissioners asked if he would stick around and answer questions, saying “I’m done.”

Immediately after Lillywhite’s departure, which also consisted of several seconds of awkward silence among those in attendance, Malone said that while he was glad Lillywhite showed up, him leaving left a “gray area” because of ongoing complaints about the department.

“I would’ve liked to have had the opportunity to ask questions because of the circumstances,” Malone said. “It leaves some really gray area because we’re dealing with ongoing complaints and inquiries as to how that’s all going to be handled. I guess we’ll have some decisions going forward on how to handle that.”

It didn’t take relatively long for those decisions to be discussed. During the commissioner’s comments section near the end of the meeting, some commissioners had pointed comments about Lillywhite and his leadership of the department, or lack thereof, in the last few months.

Shaffer, in his comments, said he was “disappointed” that the sheriff did not address his leadership of the department in his report and that he did not stay around to answer questions from commissioners, nor give his position on a letter of understanding between the county, sheriff’s department and Police Officers Association of Michigan that was approved that evening.

“My constituents really want to know how active he is in a leadership role at our Sheriff’s Department. As we watch the news from other surrounding counties when there’s issues, we see the sheriff in a leadership position, and I have not seen that in the last few months,” Shaffer said. “I’m very disappointed that he continues to hang onto the mantra of sheriff, but not the visibility and the required roles and responsibilities.”

First District St. Joseph County Commissioner Jared Hoffmaster comments on Mark Lillywhite’s job performance during commissioner comments at Tuesday’s county commission meeting. (COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON)

First District Commissioner Jared Hoffmaster had more scathing comments, saying that Lillywhite owes the public the right to answers about his leadership of the department, and that he has not made amends for his “mistake.”

“People make mistakes; I’ve made mistakes. But what I would tell my kids is that part of the way you get back on track is, one, admitting the mistake, which I didn’t hear, and two, making amends for the mistake. This is not making amends for the mistake he made,” Hoffmaster said. “For him to put us in this position, to be honest, makes me upset. Now I have to sit up here, and do I defend him to the public? I can’t do that, I can’t go home to my kids and be, yeah, it’s okay for you not to show up to work.”

Hoffmaster continued, opining that the sheriff has become “entitled” in his role.

“To do the job you’re entrusted to do as sheriff, that’s an awesome job. Being a county commissioner, I’m super proud of that, and Mark should be super proud that he is the sheriff of St. Joseph County. It’s an awesome responsibility. He unfortunately has become entitled, and that is not the way to do it,” Hoffmaster said. “We serve at the will of the people who voted for us, and if I was ever in that position, I would think I would, one, apologize, and two, make amends.”

Hoffmaster ultimately made the motion to draft a letter to Whitmer to seek Lillywhite’s removal, saying that the commission should be holding Lillywhite accountable.

“Mark is a good person. He can either come back and be our acting sheriff and do the awesome responsibility of being sheriff, or he could resign or retire. He could do any of those things, and people in our county would say he’s doing the right thing,” Hoffmaster said. “The wrong thing is to have a full-time job somewhere else, collecting a full paycheck, and then also having the taxpayers in our county pay a full-time sheriff while our undersheriff is doing 100 percent of the responsibility, taking no credit and not being paid for it.”

The motion made was not without points of order by Rosado, who requested that a closed session be held prior to taking a vote to discuss legal opinion about making such a move before doing so, citing documents the board reportedly received before the meeting. Fifth District Commissioner Dennis Allen agreed, saying that Lillywhite did what he came to do.

“He made his appearance, he gave a report to us, and I think based on what we’ve been advised, instead of making a vote, we table it and we go into closed session, as opposed to making a hasty decision,” Allen said, noting that some commissioners may want to ask “personal” questions of Lillywhite in such a session, and that they would want “clarification” on the legal side of things.

Hoffmaster pushed back against a closed session, saying that Lillywhite coming in and simply “reading headlines” was not satisfactory, and that Lillywhite, since he left the building, would not be a part of a closed session if it happened. He also stated that if any commissioners voted against a motion to initiate a complaint, they would be “endorsing a part-time sheriff.”

Rosado responded again, saying the idea of going into a closed session was away for the county to avoid any potential liability, and to try to avoid the appearance of commissioners “having a horse in the race,” since some commissioners have made endorsements for candidates in the 2024 race for sheriff, with Allen being a candidate himself. Hoffmaster rebutted, saying holding someone accountable is not akin to “taking sides.”

No closed session was ultimately taken by the board.

Malone said the commission is there to represent the citizens, especially with situations such as Lillywhite’s job, which has been a constant topic citizens have been asking commissioners about. He said some of the questions he would’ve had for Lillywhite if he stuck around would not have been about Lillywhite’s personal life, and that the first one would’ve been if he would come back to work.

In an intriguing comment, Malone said that he had a conversation back in March with Lillywhite, in which the sheriff allegedly told Malone that he would be resigning and/or retiring from his post.

“Mark told me directly. It was supposed to happen months ago, and it was lined up,” Malone said.

However, after his arraignment sentencing in April, Lillywhite’s lawyer, Michael Hills, told reporters he recommended to his client that he not resign or retire, saying that Lillywhite has “been a great sheriff for a long time” and that he’s “accepted responsibility, done what it takes, and is going to continue to do what it takes to make himself better for your community.”

Following the meeting, when asked why the county is drafting a complaint now and not in the four months since his arraignment and sentencing, Malone said it was in part because of that March conversation, and also in part because he didn’t want to see the county take on what he called an “expensive” recall effort if residents brought it to the table, even though he admitted that option is still technically on the table.

“He had his retirement in place, he was going to resign,” Malone said. “That is what I’ve been relaying to people all along, in hopes of not ending up in a situation where we would have had to undergo the expense of a recall. This was not me trying to protect anybody, this was me not wanting to see the expenditure, because a recall election, if it’s a special election, is an expensive election.”

Lillywhite could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday night on the meeting, the decision made by the commission, or the alleged conversation with Malone. In a statement reported by WWMT-TV Wednesday, Lillywhite said in a text that he “responded to the commission as they requested in their letter” and that, “It’s sad that they totally did the opposite of what their letter read.”

Malone also addressed criticism of the county commission for not taking action sooner.

“I’m not saying that we’ve handled it perfectly by any means, because the back of my mind is I’m hoping to avoid the expense of it, hoping he was going to do what he said he would, which was to resign and move on,” Malone said. “When it was mentioned about personal questions, there’s some things personal that’s been going on with him that I’m not going to get into, but I was hoping those would be done and he would resign and move on, and that just hasn’t happened.”

When asked if the expense of a recall would’ve been worth it given the criticism, Malone said he didn’t take the criticism personally.

“I’ve been in public office between [Sturgis] and over here long enough that I don’t take it personally when people are criticizing us. We’re trying to do the things we are; we’re communicating it to [Lillywhite] that, you’re creating a problem for us. Unfortunately, his response was not what we wanted, because as opposed to sticking around for questions tonight, he opted to leave.”

Lillywhite was arrested on drunk driving charges on Feb. 26, after he rear-ended another vehicle on southbound U.S. 131 between XY Avenue and West YZ Avenue in Schoolcraft Township, which led to both vehicles going off the road. Lillywhite’s blood alcohol content at the time was 0.25, more than three times the legal limit. He pled guilty in late April to one count each of operating while intoxicated and carrying a concealed weapon while under the influence, both misdemeanors, and was sentenced to 12 months’ probation, $1,375 in fines, and his concealed pistol license permit was revoked.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 or

5 Replies to “County commission seeks removal of sheriff

  1. When people have certain problems in their lives, its not always black and white, people lose their way and forget certain things. This man has done a great job for this county although his head is not clear at this time im sure he does not wish bad things upon this county.

    1. This is typical of local government, any comments to the commissioners meetings get 3 minutes to address the Commissioners, they stoically set there with no response.

  2. I feel he should be punished the same as everyone else in the county! I’ve had to pay the consequences for my actions and caused me to lose my home bussiness and jobs. As they all told me “you should of thought about the consequences before your actions!”

  3. He needs to be removed from office and to be sued by the individuals hit by his County vehicle. I’ve repented (redecided) of my past with our County. He needs to do this as well. It doesn’t seem as though Mr. Lillywhite has done this as yet.

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