Elected county executives and county home rule in Michigan: Part one

Alternatives to general county structure.

Michigan’s counties have a couple of options to the more common administrative forms of county administrator or county controller. This two article series introduces these two options and focuses on the charter county/elected executive option. The following description of this option is from Michigan State University Emeritus Professor Ken VerBurg’s Fourth Edition of the Guide to Michigan County Government, an MSU publication. Current MSU faculty are updating the book for publication in early 2017.

Elected county executives

The 1908 Michigan Constitution provided home rule for Michigan’s cities and villages but not for county governments. In 1921, the Detroit Citizens’ League and the Grand Rapids Citizens’ League pressed the legislature to propose a constitutional amendment to grant home rule government to counties.  To illustrate the need they noted that county government had too many elected officials. They argued that the city of Detroit had an annual budget of $40 million and 12 elected officers; that the Board of Education’s budget was $30 million with a board of 7 members; and Wayne County had an annual budget of $9.25 million and 113 elected officials. County government, however, had to wait 40 years before any such reform was adopted.

Michigan law permits two forms of county government reorganization. One, county home rule, is based in the state constitution and provides for an elected county executive form of organization. It is this form under which Wayne County government reorganized in 1983. The other form is provided only by statute and permits counties to have either an elected county executive or an appointed manager. Oakland and Bay counties are organized under this statute. We review each of these approaches in the remainder of this chapter.

County home rule

When the constitutional convention met in the early 1960s, it included a directive to the state legislature to enact a statute that would provide for county home rule. In 1966, the legislature passed a county home rule act, but it permits home rule counties to be very little different from what the general law county could be. Consequently, by 1980, no county had organized under its provisions. But then the legislature modified the county home rule law substantially, giving counties organized under the act, MCL 45.505, more local determination regarding the provisions of a county charter. The potential changes of a charter county were enough for Wayne County to organize under the law. However, no other county has done so, although a few have had a referendum on the question. (Since this was written in 2007, Macomb County also became a charter county in 2009) We review the provisions of the county home rule approach here that affect centralized coordination of the staff functions.

Elected executive

Charters of counties with populations of less than 1.5 million must provide for an elected county executive. Having an appointed manager is not an option under the county charter approach. The powers and duties of that county executive are defined in the charter. For example, whether the county executive has veto power, how the staff functions will be handled, and over which line departments the county executive has control could be detailed in the charter. Alternatively, the charter could leave such matters up to the county board and executive to work out.


The process of establishing a home rule county is spelled out in the statute. The process can be initiated by a citizen petition or by a resolution of the board of commissioners. Either action leads to a referendum and election of 7 to 35 (depending on the county population) charter commissioners on partisan basis. The law requires the apportionment commission to establish districts from which individual charter commissioners are to be elected.  Once elected, the charter commissioners must meet within 20 days and thereafter complete the draft charter within 180 days. The proposed charter then goes to the voters for approval. If a majority does not approve, the charter commission may make

revisions and resubmit the document to the public again. If a majority of voters again rejects the document, the charter commission is dissolved and the process terminated.”

In part two we’ll hear more from Professor VerBurg about the requirements of a county charter, and its impact on the board of commissioners.

Watch for future Michigan State University Extension articles with more information about county government. Professor VerBurg’s book, Guide to Michigan County Government, Fourth Edition, is available in electronic form online on a CD or a USB drive with nearly 500 pages of detailed information about county government, and extensive footnotes to constitutional and statutory information. The book is being updated by current MSU faculty so information and statutory notations are current. The Fifth Edition is expected in early 2017. Ordering information will be announced here in an MSU Extension news article.

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