There has been some talk lately about Washtenaw County replacing their appointed county administrator with an elected county executive.¹ This idea was introduced at the county board’s retreat on February 28. The current county administrator, Verna McDaniel, will be retiring soon, so Commissioner Andy Labarre thought it would be a good time to discuss the idea before they appoint a new administrator.
Washtenaw County has a board of nine commissioners, elected by district, all with equal power. They hire a professional administrator to run day to day operations. The administrator reports to the board collectively, meaning he/she can only be hired or fired with a majority vote (5 of 9).
Changing to an elected County Executive would change the power structure of the county government. Is this needed? Is this necessary? It appears to me to be a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.
In Michigan all local governments are organized in to 2 types of units: (source: Michigan in Brief)
- General-law units may organize themselves and exercise authority only in the way that the state constitution and statutes have specifically set forth for this type of government.
- A charter (home-rule) unit has more control over its organization and broader authority than does a general-law unit. The unit’s charter sets forth the taxing and borrowing limits (subject to state law), number of departments, and types of services to be delivered to residents.
All cities are home ruled units where the residents adopt the type of government they want using a charter. Cities can adopt a council-manager form of government with an appointed city manager or a strong mayor-council option.(source: Michigan in Brief)
For a more in-depth look at the council-manager vs strong mayor options watch this video by Kirk Westphal and the Michigan Local Government Management Association, where mayors, councilmembers, city managers and professors describe the two predominant forms of local government in the U.S. — council-manager and strong mayor — and talk about how each impacts its citizens.
All Michigan Counties, but 2, are General Law units. However, Michigan State ACT 293 allows counties to adopt a charter with voter approval. Wayne County adopted their charter in 1980 and Macomb County fairly recently in 2009. (source: Michigan in Brief)
AN ACT to provide for the establishment of charter counties; to provide for the election of charter commissioners; to prescribe their powers and duties; to prohibit certain acts of a county board of commissioners after the approval of the election of a charter commission; to prescribe the mandatory and permissive provisions of a charter; to provide for the exercise by a charter county of certain powers whether or not authorized by its charter; and to prescribe penalties and provide remedies
The remaining General Law counties have the option to centralize their government using Michigan State ACT 139 Optional Unified Form of Government using either an elected County Executive or an appointed county administrator. Oakland County and Bay County have adopted the unified form with an elected county executive. (source: Michigan in Brief)
[I realize that most people think that Oakland county is a charter county, but I have found no evidence of that anywhere]
AN ACT to provide forms of county government; to provide for county managers and county executives and to prescribe their powers and duties; to abolish certain departments, boards, commissions, and authorities; to provide for transfer of certain powers and functions; to prescribe powers of a board of county commissioners and elected officials; to provide organization of administrative functions; to transfer property; to retain ordinances and laws not inconsistent with this act; to provide methods for abolition of a unified form of county government; and to prescribe penalties and provide remedies
Using ACT 139 appears to be a way for counties to switch to an elected county executive without having to go through the process of writing a charter.
A Solution to what?
So why even consider this proposal to have an elected County Executive instead of an appointed county administrator? What is the benefit to doing this? Let’s ask some basic questions to find out if there are any benefits.
Can an elected County Executive help the county administration run more efficiently?
Not really. It puts in another layer of management that has no real purpose. The County Executive won’t have much power because much (perhaps most) of county government is not under the control of the County Administrator, and thus wouldn’t be under the control of the Executive. The Sheriff employs the most people in county government and he’s autonomous. The courts are independent and controlled by the Chief Judge. The roads are controlled by an appointed Road Commission. The water/drain system is controlled by the Water Resources Commissioner. The clerk operations (court records, marriages, elections, etc.) are controlled by the County Clerk Register of Deeds. The prosecutor is elected and autonomous. Yes, there are other departments in county government such as the health department, human services and basic administrative departments, but do we really need an elected official to over see them?
Having an elected executive instead of a county administrator does not make things more efficient, but rather would be no different in day to day operations for the few departments that would report to the position. Our county government is working just fine right now.
Can an elected County Executive help the board of commissioners run more efficiently?
No, and in fact it injects politics into the process. It would impose another layer of political bickering and partisanship. If the executive is given voting or veto privileges the board of commissioners lose some of their power. With loss of power comes more debate and more bickering. Think about how well President Obama and congress get along.
Some might feel that another check and balance might be good, more discussion is good, more bickering is good. I simply say that if it aint broke, don’t fix it. We don’t need to make things more complicated versus not broken.
Can an elected County Executive be more qualified to do the job?
No. Any resident of the county can run for the county executive position. The pool of potential candidates is relatively small due to the fact that they have to be a resident of the county. There are no pre-reqs that qualify someone for the job. It is a crap shoot on what you end up with. The main responsibility of the administrator/executive is to prepare the county budget. This is not a simple thing to do. It is not something one can outsource. The public may unknowingly elect someone whose administrative budget skills are not that great. If the elected executive does a poor job or does something unethical, the public is stuck with them until the next election. If the elected county executive is popular, but does a poor job, they still could be returned to office by an unknowing electorate. That would be not good for the budget and therefore not good for the county.
On the other hand, if you appoint a county administrator, the board can do a national search and find a candidate that has the appropriate skills for the job and who fits into the culture. If the administrator does a poor job or turns out to be incompetent or unethical the board can fire them and replace them.
Can an elected County Executive represent the county in a beneficial manner throughout the state?
Yes, an elected county executive can represent the county as a centralized voice that represents our interests publicly in public transit, economic development, etc. Washtenaw county is now an engine of economic growth and a voice dedicated to issues pertaining to that would definitely benefit us. A centralized voice representing Washtenaw county on the State level and in the Metro Detroit area could lead to some beneficial partnerships.
However, most of our county is rural, we can’t get away from that fact. Would an executive who reflects those ideals really be elected by rural Washtenaw County voters who don’t appreciate those things? Probably not. Remember how poorly the county wide bus millage played.
Maybe this could be accomplished through another mechanism such as one of our 9 county commissioners taking on the liaison role for specific areas. One commissioner can be the centralized voice for transportation, another for economic development, etc. We could use the system we have now to get this benefit that we desire.
I’m not convinced that the switch from a county administrator to an elected county executive would benefit the county. The cons seem to outweigh the pros at this point for me. Although I see benefit in having a centralized voice representing the county throughout the state, there really is no direct benefit to the county itself. There is no problem that is solved by implementing this change in Washtenaw County. It just seems like an unnecessary waste of time at this point.
This is a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist. County government works just fine and we shouldn’t meddle with the structure at this time.
imperium in imperio
¹Ben Freed, Could Washtenaw County elect its top official? Mlive.com March 3.2015.