The county controller’s role in county government, part 2

County controller responsibilities are similar to those of an administrator, with specific differences specified in state law.

The role of county controller is similar to that of a county administrator with some specific differences identified in state statute, MCL 46.13b, as we learned in the first part of this article. Ken VerBurg, Michigan State University professor emeritus tells us more about the relationship with the county board in this excerpt from the 2007 edition of his book, Guide to Michigan County Government.

”How should one classify the office of county controller? Is it comparable to the office of city manager, for example? The answer, in general, is no. The controller statute, MCL 46.13b, was first adopted in 1927 and last amended in 1969 and still contains rather authoritative language. Much of the language reflects the fact that county boards were boards of county supervisors from scattered places around the county. During the recent decades county government has changed a great deal in informal ways.

“County controllers now serve primarily as staff for the board. The duties often include an array of the staff functions listed above but the tone of county controller functions has softened substantially over the last few decades. Despite these changes, it is important to note that a county controller’s duties differ from those of a city manager who would have broader supervisory responsibilities over line departments such as the police and fire departments, parks and recreation administrators, and similar departments who in a council-manager city, would report to the city manager. However, the two positions are similar with respect to management of the budget, both in terms of developing the budget and administering it through the course of the year. Controllers and city managers also have similar policy-development and problem-solving roles.

“In some counties, the controller is a person of considerable influence. The key to such influence is the confidence that the board places in the individual and the manner in which the person exercises the statutory duties assigned to the office.

“The office of controller, as we have noted, is statutory but discretionary with the board. Counties, both large and small, use the controller form of administrative organization. A county board may establish the position by passing a resolution and it can fill the position by majority vote. The law, however, requires a two- thirds majority vote of the board to remove a controller. This feature tends to give commissioners misgivings about creating the position. The concern is that the super-majority vote required to dismiss a controller may give the appointee too much power and encourage the person to remain in the job even without the support of a majority of the board of commissioners. Boards with this concern will probably turn to the administrator or coordinator arrangement.

“The act does not specify any particular qualifications for the job. Although, most counties adopt a position description and in it prescribe the qualifications necessary. County controllers typically have an accounting or financial background in government or business. It is also common for them to have some experience in county government. Controllers also tend to have fairly long tenure in their positions. With more and more professional administrators in county governments, county boards seek more experienced personnel to fill them. Hence, the tendency for mobility from county to county by these appointees becomes more common.”

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 continually updated so information and statutory notations are current. The fifth edition is expected early winter 2016/2017.

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