COUNTY EXECUTIVE: Government Structure Needs Re-examination
Presidential-Style Politics at the Local Level Has Many Pitfalls
March 30, 2016
By: Dave Rogers
Bay County government has evolved into a kind of hybrid
The so-called Unified Form of County Government, adopted by the state as Public Act 139, promoted for Bay County by activist Ed Czuprynski in 1979, has created a presidential style political structure here that needs to be re-examined.
Only Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Bay counties have the County Executive form of government. Of course, the southeastern Michigan counties are about ten times the population and tax base of Bay County and can afford to have a mini-presidential system set up under P.A. 139.
Bay County government has evolved into a kind of hybrid: an elected executive who must keep peace with five other elected department heads all separately seeking voter approval and negotiating their budgets with the commission.
Plus he must deal with seven elected county commissioners from two political parties who have their own ideas about how things should run.
Bay County government, therefore, is anything but "Unified."
However, the elected Bay County Executive manages twelve (12) departments, including Administrative Services, 9-1-1 Central Dispatch, Corporation Counsel, Environmental Affairs & Community Development, Equalization, Finance, Health, Housing, Juvenile Detention & Child Care Services, Personnel & Employee Relations, Public Defender and Recreation and Facilities.
The main flaw with the system as it now operates is that the qualifications of a county manager and an effective politician are not often personified in the same individual. Mr. Hickner came along after gaining valuable management experience in the Senate Fiscal Agency of state government and as a state representative. Plus, he has an MBA, advanced degree in business management, a rare qualification among politicians.
The performance of two previous county executives, while no doubt well-meaning on the whole, showed the focus on politics is not conducive to governmental management at the county level -- at least in a county the size of Bay -- about 110,000 population.
The volatility of politics is being explicitly displayed for the world to see right now. Cool heads and wisdom are not on display; world leaders are appalled at the antics of the Presidential candidates. The nation's diplomatic bona fides are threatened by the instability of some "personalities." Great Britain, Canada and Mexico all have threatened to bar certain actors should they be elected. This incredible situation has no historical precedent. Certainly the country will survive, but our standing as a leader of the free world is jeopardized. Hope and prayer should be our main strategies in this environment.
Actually, the state government in Michigan also is on the rocks because of politics. Ideological decisions often fail to take the welfare of people into prime consideration. The concept of running government like a business has many pitfalls, as the situation in Flint demonstrates.
So perhaps the most appropriate decision we voters in Bay County should make is whether to rethink the events of 1979 and return to the appointed county manager system. Eschew the inherent political weakness of the system. Put the management in the hands of an appointed administrator -- like the way it operates in cities. That way the county commission can weigh the education and experience in management and hire the best-qualified candidate -- like the city commission does in hiring a city manager.
Bay County had an appointed county administrator for many years prior to the petition drive engineered by Mr. Czuprynski that gave us the county executive system.
The elected executive system we have inherently is difficult to manage because of potential conflicts with the other elected county officials -- clerk, treasurer, sheriff, register of deeds, drain commissioner, as well as the county commissioners themselves. So the county executive needs to have the wisdom and ability to keep peace among some fragile vote-seeking egos.
The recent Facebook announcement by former Member of Congress and state senator Jim Barcia, now a lobbyist, to run against his friend and longtime colleague Tom Hickner is a good example of the need to look at how we got to this point. They are both friends of mine so I will try to be as objective as possible in analyzing the executive system.
In 2010, Barcia announced his retirement after 34 years in a variety of public offices, state representative, state senator, Member of Congress and another term as state senator. Lately, he has been a senior counselor with the Livingston Group, a Washington, D.C. lobbying firm.
In his farewell speech to the state senate in 2010, Barcia pointed to the whistleblower protection act which he said "at the time gained national acclaim for our state as we were the first governmental unit in North America to pass such a law. As a member of Congress, I authored the federal partial-birth abortion ban regarding late-term abortions, which has been upheld as constitutional by the United States Supreme Court."
What we face now is considering whether in effect to replace Mr. Hickner, 62, who has done an excellent job over the past two decades, with his friend and colleague Mr. Barcia, 64. Both of these men are outstanding public servants with decades of experience in politics.
There seems to be no need or public appetite to make such a change. No scandals have been reported in Bay County government during Mr. Hickner's tenure in office and he has helped create peace where previously there was conflict.
You may remember the tumultuous environment of previous administrations, including costly lawsuits against judges and department heads -- all financed by we taxpayers.
Under Mr. Hickner, the county has had balanced budgets and has banked a substantial "rainy day" surplus fund. The County Commission has been running smoothly and few disagreements have arisen. The main dispute in recent years is over proposed expansion of the Valley Center Technology Park that has been placed on hold by commissioners for several years.
Some business leaders reportedly have criticized Mr. Hickner for being unable to settle the issue and bring the opposing sides together to get the growth of the tech park started again. Whether Mr. Barcia, if he was to be elected, could solve that puzzle is another question because six of the seven commissioners are firm in their decision to stop the expansion of the tech park. There is no way the executive can over-ride that stance.
The brainchild of former banker Cliff Van Dyke, Valley Center has dozens of firms and more than 1,000 employees, a great success by anyone's measurement. Perhaps the major issue lurking beneath the surface is where the property taxes from the businesses go -- to the county general fund or to the tech park in the form of tax capture to be used for expansion. Right now, because of the standoff in the commission, most of the taxes are going to the county general fund.
Changing the structure of government will not be easy. A citizen petition drive to put the question on the ballot is the only way to start.
Perhaps the county executive, whoever he is, can start the analysis by the citizenry by appointing a special blue ribbon study committee. Maybe after the next four years of the county executive system, we can have the choice of returning to the appointed county administrator instead of the county executive.
Meanwhile, if Barcia is really serious about mounting a campaign after five years of retirement, we voters are going to be faced with a Hobson's choice in the primary election in August.
For our part, we see no reason to change horses now while Mr. Hickner has the county on the right path.
Hopefully, over the next four years officials can have the wisdom to put the voting and taxpaying public first by planning to eliminate the elected county executive and return to the appointed manager/administrator system.
"The BUZZ" - Read Feedback From Readers!
On April 06, 2016
at 01:22 PM
I don't always agree with on issues but I do on two of those you mention in this column.
I think we need to look at the County Executive form of
government. We are not Oakland, Macomb and Wayne Counties in size. I think the administrator form of
running the county would be more efficient and less expensive to the taxpayer. I think a study on making the change would be good and then a petition drive if it looks feasible.
In regard to the Monitor Tech Park, I thing we need to keep some funding available for the DDA to have available for recruiting new businesses in the park and maintenance of the park. We could just use part of
the general fund millage and not the special millages like schools, libraries etc.
Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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