St. Joseph County Sheriff Mark Lillywhite stands in Kalamazoo County District Court in April after pleading guilty to operating while intoxicated charges. On Sept. 2, St. Joseph County commissioners officially sent a letter to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel requesting Lillywhite’s removal as sheriff. (COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON)
By Robert Tomlinson
CENTREVILLE — A decision on whether or not to remove Mark Lillywhite as sheriff of St. Joseph County is now up to the powers that be in Lansing.
A letter was recently sent by the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer regarding their concerns over Lillywhite’s “willful neglect of his statutory duties as an elected official.” The letter, dated Aug. 31 and obtained by the Commercial-News via Freedom of Information Act request, was also sent to Attorney General Dana Nessel.
The letter was sent on Sept. 2, and a notice that a letter was being sent was also hand-delivered to Lillywhite on the afternoon of Sept. 1, according to County Administrator Teresa Doehring.
County commissioners voted 6-1 to initiate the letter to the governor’s office during their Aug. 15 meeting, where a very brief report on the department’s activities was given by Lillywhite, who abruptly exited the meeting afterward.
Included with the letter is a two-page sworn affidavit from County Commission Chair Ken Malone on what went on during the county’s Aug. 15 meeting, as well as six pages of Kalamazoo County Eighth District Court records from Lillywhite’s operating while intoxicated case back in February.
The Michigan Attorney General’s office confirmed in an email Tuesday via press secretary Danny Wimmer that their review of St. Joseph County’s request is ongoing. A spokesperson for Gov. Whitmer’s office said back in August that once a petition is sent, it is sent to the Attorney General’s office for review and recommendation, and only after the Attorney General has made a recommendation does the governor review the request.
Lillywhite’s possible removal is pursuant to MCL 168.207, the state law that governs removal of an elected county official from office. Because the county commission cannot do so themselves, since Lillywhite is an elected official, their only option, if they wish to remove him, is to make a request to the governor.
The letter laid out the situation regarding Lillywhite’s original OWI arrest in February following a crash on U.S. 131 outside of Schoolcraft, where he rear-ended another vehicle while approaching speeds of 100 miles per hour, with the impact causing the other vehicle to roll several times. Lillywhite’s blood alcohol content was three times the legal limit at the time of the crash. He pled guilty on April 24 to a misdemeanor charge of operating while intoxicated, and was sentenced to 12 months’ probation, $1,375 in fines, and had his concealed pistol license revoked.
Continuing, commissioners wrote that since Lillywhite’s conviction in April, “it has come to our attention that [Lillywhite] has failed to perform his statutory duties as Sheriff,” claiming he has exhibited “willful neglect of his office, in violation of MCL 750.478.” It also notes that commissioners learned Lillywhite started working a full-time position with another employer during that time.
Commissioners wrote that prior to Aug. 15, they requested in writing that Lillywhite provide them a report regarding the performance of Lillywhite’s duties as sheriff, adding that Lillywhite “failed to discuss any aspect of his performance as Sheriff and instead spoke only about the general operations of the department.” It also noted Lillywhite’s hasty departure from the meeting after, despite commissioners requesting him to stay and answer questions.
“We believe it is imperative that we bring these issues to your attention,” the letter states. “We have received numerous complaints from citizens regarding this issue and determined that we have an obligation to act, recognizing that we are constrained in our options under Michigan law.”
The notice to Lillywhite of the letter’s delivery, signed by Malone, was sent via email and was hand-delivered to Lillywhite’s home on Sept. 1. In it, Malone wrote that the commissioners determined, based on his behavior at the Aug. 15 meeting, that he had “willfully neglected the duties” of his office, and the complaint had begun.
“As stated in our letter sent to you on August 4, 2023, the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners has an obligation to the public to ensure that County expenses are necessary and justified. In accordance with this statute, we requested you to appear at the Board meeting on August 15, 2023 to report on your performance of the duties of your office,” the letter stated. “At the meeting you shared information regarding general operations within your department, but you failed to discuss the performance of your duties as Sheriff. Additionally, you abruptly left the meeting without allowing the Board an opportunity to ask you any additional questions about your job performance.
“The Board has determined that you have willfully neglected the duties of your office and, therefore, will initiate a complaint with the Governor asking that you be removed from office in accordance with MCL 168.207. In the alternative, the Board would also accept your resignation as Sheriff. If you decide to resign please send your letter of resignation to my attention.”
Undersheriff Jason Bingaman has been the point person for the Sheriff’s Department since Lillywhite’s February arrest, although Lillywhite remains on the county’s payroll. The letter to the governor mentions that the commissioners are “responsible for ensuring appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.”
According to Michigan law, if Lillywhite is removed from office, he will not be eligible to election or appointment to any public office for a period of three years from the date of removal.
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 or firstname.lastname@example.org.