County government in Michigan based on four models

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

Who dreamed up this thing we call county government? Why does it look like it does? As with most social institutions, the colonists modified and adapted their governments to new circumstances in a new land. As we look back, we find four basic off-shoots of the model brought over from England.

Four models came into existence in the colonies, Virginia, New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. Ken VerBurg, MSU professor gives us a brief description of the one model that most heavily influenced the development of county government in Michigan, in the 2007 edition of his book, Guide to Michigan County Government.

“The approach developed in New York was the one that settlers in Michigan later used. Early New Yorkers were influenced by the two approaches already underway. They developed a plan that was a compromise of these two approaches. One of the strong influences was the New England town government. The other resulted from English-type ridings established by the Duke of York after he defeated the Dutch in New York in 1616. Ridings were judicial circuits covering several towns within an area. Gradually, the circuits began to take on the character of county government. But right from the beginning of the dual organization, there were disputes over which of the units would dominate. The compromise plan called for town supervisors within a riding to function collectively as the county board. The New York Colonial Assembly adopted this approach in 1704. It was later transplanted to Michigan, Illinois, and some other states by settlers moving westward on the Erie Canal.“

As you can tell from the reference to a judicial circuit called a “riding”, early local government in Michigan may have been influenced by the distance one could travel in a day’s time. Some have said that the size of townships and counties was related to the distance a resident could walk (townships), or ride their horse (counties) and back home in a day’s time to conduct their government business.

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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