Impacts of county government restructuring on the county board

Several methods of restructuring county government in Michigan exist, and all make life different for county commissioners.

Several previous Michigan State University Extension news articles about county administrative roles (administrators, controllers, charter/elected executives, and the optional unified form) have addressed alternative forms of structuring county governments in Michigan. Only four counties have made those changes, Wayne, Macomb, Oakland, and Bay. MSU Emeritus Professor and author Ken VerBurg has some thoughts on the impact of those structural changes on the county board of commissioners in his 2007 book, Guide to Michigan County Government, an MSU publication.

“It probably comes as no surprise that reorganizing county government either as a home rule county or one of the optional unified forms has a very significant effect on the board of commissioners. The elected executive forms generally tend to separate the executive functions from the legislative functions, and the county commission becomes more clearly legislative in nature. This comes about not only because of the structural changes but also because of the political identity and leadership that accompanies being elected on a countywide basis. The elected executive tends to gain a great deal of media attention, makes proposals that others can hardly ignore, and speaks on behalf of the county more than anyone else.”

In the four counties that have reorganized, (Wayne, Oakland and Bay prior to Professor VerBurg’s writing in 2007, and Macomb in 2009), the transition has not gone entirely smoothly. Again quoting Professor VerBurg, “County executives have tended to reach out to consolidate as much executive authority as seemed possible. County commissioners were shown new boundaries on their authority and responsibility. In a number of instances, one side or the other sued to have a judge rule on the dispute. Some of the disputes have been spirited, as we might expect, in making a change in a system that has been in place for 150 years or more. But in the process, some of the uncertainties have been resolved.

For experienced county commissioners perhaps the most difficult adjustment to be made at the time of a change is learning to function as a legislator. There are no schools, only experience, to teach a person how to become an effective legislator. Learning how to be a solid evaluator and critic, the legislator’s primary task…is difficult and sometimes wearisome. But gradually the three county commissions continue to develop their role in the reorganized county governments.”

As Professor VerBurg points out when talking about the commissioners role during times of government reorganization, the county legislative role in general is complex and takes time on the job to fully learn. The Guide to Michigan County Government is one tool for learning about the role. Another is the New County Commissioner Workshops being offered later this fall by MSU Extension and the Michigan Association of Counties. This MSU Extension article announcing the dates and locations also gives a bit of the history of the workshop series. Registration is expected to be open in early October and will be announced in a future MSU Extension article.

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 so information and statutory notations are current. The Fifth Edition is expected early in 2017.

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