Michigan’s optional unified form of county government: Part one

The optional unified form is another alternative method for Michigan counties to structure their administrative role.

In addition to administrators, controllers and the county charter/elected executive forms of county administration, counties can also choose to have either an elected executive or appointed manager under what is commonly called the “optional form” of county government. This form gives the advantages of an executive structure like the state and federal governments without the process of writing a home rule charter. Again, we look to Michigan State University Emeritus Professor Ken VerBurg in the 2007 edition of the Guide to Michigan County Government to describe this option. The book is an MSU publication and is currently being updated.

“Optional forms

Another state law, referred to as "Optional Unified Form of County Government," permits a county to reorganize either under an elected county executive or an appointed county manager form of government. This act, passed in 1973, allows less local discretion in some respects than the county home rule act but more than general county law permits. In the first 34 years of this act, only Oakland and Bay counties have chosen to adopt the elected executive alternative.

Executive powers

The county executive, under this approach, is elected to a four-year term on a partisan basis. Under the appointed manager form, the board of commissioners would make the appointment. Under either of the two approaches, a relatively strong executive office is created. Most of the typical executive powers reside in the office. For example, either would have charge of all departments not headed by an elected official. Both would be responsible for coordinating and unifying the management of county affairs, enforcing the rules and ordinances of the county, proposing a budget, approving bills for payment, appointing all department heads, and making recommendations to reorganize the departments of the county and for the efficient conduct of county business.

Departmental alignment

Among the departments that a county government organized under this act can establish and place under the executive are those listed below. Note that some of these are line departments:

  • A department of administrative service to handle general administrative and service functions of the county.
  • A department of finance to supervise the county budget, maintain expenditure control, perform all central accounting functions, manage purchasing services, and, without interfering with the duties of the county treasurer, collect funds owing to the county, and handle investments, borrowing, and debt management.
  • A department of planning and development to prepare comprehensive plans for county development, coordinate a capital improvements program, operate an economic development program, and represent the county in intergovernmental projects.
  • A department of medical examiners.
  • A department of corporation counsel to perform the civil law functions.
  • A department of parks and recreation to have charge of all county parks and recreation programs unless the county has a parks and recreation commission.
  • A department of personnel and employee relations.
  • A department of health and environmental protection.
  • A department of libraries if the county does not have a library board or commission.
  • A department of public works to manage county drains and sewers, provide engineering services, construction and maintenance services, and operate the county airport. (This department may not exercise the functions assigned to the county drain commissioner or to the road commission.)”

In part two, Ken describes veto power of the executive and the process for adoption of the optional unified form. A future article will address impacts of the county executive forms 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 so information and statutory notations are current. The Fifth Edition is expected during winter 2017.

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