Michigan counties have several options for administrative structure

The Guide to Michigan County Government is a great source of detailed information about the structure, function, and services provided by counties in Michigan.

County administrative structure varies across Michigan’s 83 counties. This is because state statutes allow for several options, and give the county the choice of structure that best fits their needs. Future articles will discuss each method. In this article, we again look to the writing of Ken VerBurg, MSU professor emeritus in the 2007 edition of his book, Guide to Michigan County Government, to give us some of the history of how we got to this point. 

“When the settlers were founding county government in America, they introduced various devices to eliminate what they saw as abuses of power by the English monarchs and their appointed governors. Acting on the belief that the officer who controlled the funds also controlled the power, these early designers of our governments made certain that no one person would have total control over the money and money records. Paramount in their minds was accountability and responsibility for public funds, so they separated the authority for handling money and making expenditures. The county board determined how the money could be spent and reviewed the invoices to make sure they were proper; the county clerk maintained the records of the expenditures and informed the treasurer of the board’s approval for payment; and the treasurer who had actual custody of the funds made the disbursements as instructed. The settlers coming to Michigan brought many elements of this kind of structure with them.

The pattern is not quite that simple today, even though the rudiments of this approach are still visible in most Michigan counties. A number of counties now have county executives (elected or appointed county controllers or administrators) and departments of finance. 

We could recite all the statutory provisions relating to the management of county affairs but a number of them have not been updated. Despite the wording of many statutes, counties now tend to apply these legal directives in ways that seem to best fit their needs and situations. Thus, while some urban and rural counties both use the county controller act, their methods of operation and ways of delegating various responsibilities differ rather substantially. Highly urbanized and densely populated counties tend to rely more on their appointed personnel than do counties with smaller populations. 

As we discuss the several officers that, by law, have a responsibility for some aspect of financial management, we ask you to keep in mind that the description may not exactly fit your county. We will begin with an overview of elected officers ⎯ the treasurer and clerk. We then consider appointed-administrator approaches ⎯ the county controller and county administrator or coordinator.” 

Watch for future Michigan State University Extension articles about the roles of clerks and treasurers, appointed administrators and controllers, and elected administrators. 

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, with extensive footnotes to constitutional and statutory information. The update process is underway to be sure the information and statutory notations are current, with rollout of the Fifth Edition expected in fall 2016. 

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