The county clerk’s role with the board of commissioners

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 Clerks in Michigan have a wide range of responsibilities, varying from elections, to clerk of the court, to financial responsibilities, to serving as the clerk for the board of commissioners. The role with the board of commissioners is a very important one. Ken VerBurg, MSU professor emeritus gives us some detail in the 2007 edition of his book, Guide to Michigan County Government.

“The county clerk is an officer of the county commission in much the same way that the lieutenant governor is an officer of the state senate. Both are directly elected to their offices and both have legally assigned duties- the lieutenant governor is president of the senate and the county clerk is the clerk or secretary of the board. In neither case, of course, does this mean they are "insiders" of the legislative body, especially if they are members of the minority party. Nonetheless, the county clerk is designated by statute as clerk of the board, serving the interests of both the board and the general public. Specific duties and responsibilities come with that assignment.

As clerk of the board, this officer, or his or her deputy, must maintain a record of all the board's proceedings, make a record of the resolutions and decisions, and record the votes on each question according to conditions stated later. In this connection the clerk is responsible for producing the board minutes and administering the appropriate parts of the open meetings and the freedom of information acts. The county clerk also certifies the minutes and the board's approval of claims or bills for payment, a task that ties in with the clerk's responsibility of maintaining the county's financial accounts.

The clerk's duties with respect to board activities may be even greater than those listed, because the law also directs the clerk "to perform such other and further duties as such board may, by resolution, require." That includes, for example, the responsibility to serve as secretary to the various board committees. In addition, it could include maintaining and distributing a record of the board's policy resolutions, or helping the board prepare an agenda and in other ways helping it manage its legislative processes.

The county clerk does not participate in the discussions of the board or in the voting. The clerk, however, is sometimes asked to preside at the meeting in which the chair is elected. Typically, this is not a long-term assignment. On one occasion, however, the number of county commissioners was even numbered and divided evenly by gender and partisan affiliation; the clerk served as chair until July.

Just how much a clerk contributes to the smooth operations of a county board varies greatly from county to county. Because county clerks are full time in the county and at the center of much of the business of the county and the board, they are especially well situated to make important contributions. Indeed, many do. But sometimes relationships become strained and the extent of assistance diminishes. Under those circumstances boards may decide to employ their own staff to help in coordinating the board's business. The clerk, then, typically performs only those duties that the law specifies and the board directly requires. The board, the clerk, and the public may all be losers when strained relations create such gulfs between these units of county government.”

A few smaller counties have also chosen to “hire” the county clerk as their administrator for a portion of the clerk’s time, providing additional pay for the added responsibilities. While the potential exists for conflicts between the clerk’s role as an elected official and their responsibilities to the board as administrator, these counties have apparently been successful at resolving such issues, and have found the practice of having a part time administrator who works full time for the county to be an improvement over trying to handle all the administrative responsibilities themselves.

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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