County board officers in Michigan

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

The chairs of some local government bodies have quite a bit of power in the structure of the position, while others have very little. Ken VerBurg, MSU professor emeritus gives us some insight into the role and power of county board chairs and vice-chairs in the 2007 edition of his book, Guide to Michigan County Government

“Strictly speaking, a county commission has only two officers ⎯ the board chair and the vice-chair.

Traditionally, the law required a county board of commissioners to elect a chairperson and vice-chairperson each year at the first meeting in January. That law has since been changed to require a county board to elect the chairperson at its first meeting in each odd-numbered year even while requiring the election of the vice-chair to a one-year term. The statute goes on to say that a board, by majority vote, may have the election of the chairperson be to a one-year term. It is important to note that statute states that the board may not use the one-year term option as a tool to remove from the chairmanship a person who was elected to a two-year term. 

Perhaps the most visible statutory responsibility is to chair meetings of the county board. As chairperson, the person has a key duty of making sure that each motion is processed fairly and that each member has a sound understanding of the motions and their implications. 

The chairperson also has duties other than conducting meetings. For example, the chair administers oaths and issues subpoenas to witnesses but only in connection with board matters. The chair also serves as a signatory on various documents. The chair or an official designee must also decide on and sign denials of requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The board chair also has some official appointing powers. 

Usually the board's rules also give the chair a key role in appointing board committees. The vice-chair's official duties are more limited. This officer presides over meetings of the county commission when the chair is absent and is a member of the intra-county board of drain determination in the place of a commission member who may be disqualified for that board. 

County commissions, for the most part, do not build in many informal duties that increase the influence and authority of the office of board chair. The development of smaller county commissions has not increased the authority of the office. 

The board chair position has a few other structural problems. The person serving as board chair, like other commissioners, is elected from a commissioner district. So, the board chair has no special political base other than the board itself from which to claim special political power. Moreover, county commissions often select a person as chair on a seniority basis. Put that together with the short term of one or two years and you find that the position is not structured to be an especially strong office. 

But neither should we dismiss the office as merely an honorific title bestowed by the commission on one of its members. County outsiders and insiders commonly think of the county board chair as the county's chief elected official. The person, thus, has a platform from which to exercise some official leadership. The chair can properly speak on behalf of the county board to explain its actions or, perhaps, to discuss the board’s future plans. Media reporters, for example, often look to the chairperson for explanations and information.

Occasionally we find county board chairpersons providing leadership by defining certain county problems and presenting their ideas on what the board or some county agency ought to do about it. In this way the chair has a special opportunity to place issues on the board agenda.”

So, the chair of a county board is not an especially powerful position. Some have called the chair a “leader among peers”. Today, some scholars argue that the most effective leaders are those who earn their authority by action, rather than by their position. The role of county board chair seems well suited to that environment.

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, 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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