Main functions of county commissioners 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.

Michigan’s county boards of commissioners are elected to oversee a complex local unit of government. Three of their key roles are described by Ken VerBurg, MSU professor emeritus in the 2007 edition of his book, Guide to Michigan County Government. I’ll add a fourth, more a characteristic of how they do their work, later in this article.

“Almost anyone who has completed a course in social studies or government will tell you that the first task of a legislature is to pass laws. Very few people will add two other functions that textbooks mention; conducting legislative oversight and providing constituent services. But if you watch county commissioners or other legislators, you will see them carrying out these responsibilities. The extent of some of these functions will vary from county to county depending on the administrative structure of the county government. Commissioners in counties with strong administrative systems will have different responsibilities than those in counties having no central administrative system. Let's review each of the legislative functions briefly.

Setting Policy

Residents and, perhaps, some county commissioners may not think of the county board as passing laws. Three reasons explain this perception. First, we use a different name for the measures that county commissioners pass; the state law refers to them as ordinances rather than laws or statutes. Second, county boards face rather significant limitations on the ordinances they may pass; consequently they do not pass very many. Third, few county ordinances affect the public directly.

Does this mean that boards of county commissioners do not function very actively as a lawmaking body? The answer is no, especially if we take a broader view of the function and define it as "making or setting policy." In that sense, county commissioners are lawmakers; they pass numerous resolutions that establish the policies of county government. These policies deal primarily with the agencies of county government and less directly with county residents. County policies deal largely with the county budget, appropriations, personnel, capital improvements, county services, and other internal matters.

Legislative Oversight

The second function, legislative oversight, may be especially important for county boards. Because of the limits on county lawmaking powers and the statutory assignment of duties to elected county officers, county commissioners may devote some of their time to looking over the shoulders of the administrators in county government. In so doing, they seek to assure that county administrators carry out their tasks effectively and efficiently. And they try to assess the effects of programs that county funds are being used for.

Constituent Services

A third major legislative function is providing constituent service; that is, checking on problems residents may have with a county agency, helping them obtain the services of a county agency, or just providing information one of them has asked for. Some critics, of course, argue that providing constituent services is only year-around politicking. To a degree that is so. But representing voters to administrators is a function that few, other than elected officials, can perform. This involvement with residents also strengthens the oversight function because it gives commissioners a sense of how county programs are working.”

The Big Picture

This is the fourth characteristic I mentioned above. As the elected body that oversees the entire county budget, the Board of Commissioners also needs to look carefully at the ways that county departments interact with each other. The board is uniquely situated to be the unit of county government that keeps an eye on the future, anticipating changes in society and enabling legislation, and, through their policy setting role, working to keep the entire county operation focused on excellence and cost effectiveness in their provision of services to citizens.

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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