County commissioner committee structures vary

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 boards in Michigan utilize a wide variety of committee structures. The trend over the past 20 years has been toward fewer committees, and many now use a “committee of the whole”, a single committee made up of the entire board. Advantages of this structure include all board members being part of the in-depth discussion that leads up to creation of solutions, and, in the case of boards that schedule separate decision-making meetings and discussion and problem solving meetings, this separation gives more time for consideration and thought about impacts of the proposed solution to a problem. One admirable goal of this added time for consideration is the opportunity to reduce the likelihood of policy creating unintended consequences.

Ken VerBurg, MSU professor emeritus talks about additional aspects of county committees in the 2007 edition of his book, Guide to Michigan County Government.

“Legislative bodies traditionally operate with some form of committee system. It is a way for the body to spread the workload and develop some specialization among the members. The larger legislative bodies tend to have “strong” committee systems while smaller bodies have “weak” committee systems, if they have committees at all.

“Strong committee” systems are those where committees are responsible for various topics such as zoning, human relations, economic development, etc. Commissioners typically are assigned to one, perhaps to two committees and tend to focus their attention on the policies and practices related to such topics. Commissioners who do not serve on the specific committee tend to defer to the committee members of a certain committee when a topic of the committee comes before the complete board. Non-members of the specific committee will often rely on the specific committee members to define the problem or issue and on their recommendation for full board action.

“Weak committee” systems have the opposite effect. If the county board has a small number of members (e.g. 5 to 15) and has a committee system, each commissioner might serve on three or more committees. Such assignments disperse the attention of individual commissioners to the point where they cannot be as specialized or “expert” on the given topics as they would like to be. The responsibility for definition of the issues and problems and how to solve them also then tends to be shared among a larger number of board members. Such commissions may also be likely to rely on other sources for problem analysis and solution recommendations.

The result may mean that the board (1) takes longer to reach its conclusions, (2) considers the issues in less detail, and (3) compromises more to accommodate some member's intuition about what is the best way to go.

Another possible outcome, especially in smaller counties with few professional personnel, is that one or two of the commissioners may be on the job almost full- time and thus carry a disproportionate share of the responsibility and influence.

Although committee systems are commonplace, the law does not say much about the committee structures the legislative bodies must have. Legislative bodies, including county commissions, devise their committee structures according to their own preferences and circumstances. That is why so many of the smaller county boards decide to work as committees of the whole. In this situation the committee system serves mostly to organize the flow of board business and to set the topics for the various meetings.”

It is interesting to note that the use of committee of the whole has grown from mostly by small boards when VerBurg wrote, to include boards of all sizes today.

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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