As Oakland County Executive I support the Michigan Legislature's enactment of HB 5187, a bill that addresses several issues important to Oakland County government and its taxpayers. First and most importantly, HB 5187 requires a reduction in the size of Oakland County government.
The current law required Oakland County have at least 25 elected county commissioners. In fact, it allowed for the election of an additional 10 commissioners, or a total of 35 possible slots. We agree with the majority of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners: there is no need for Oakland or any other county to elect and pay for more than 21 elected commissioners.
HB 5187 changes the current requirement and provides that Michigan counties having over 50,000 in population may not have more than 21 commissioners. Under this new standard, Oakland County must reduce its board of commissioners by four elected positions. This reduction in the size of government will save an estimated $500,000 in salary, fringe benefits, travel, mileage and other miscellaneous expenses over the two year commission term commencing January 1, 2013. It saves at least $2.5 million between now and the next actionable U.S. Census. The Legislature needed to act this month if the taxpayers were to realize any before calendar year 2015. Fortunately, they did and now the taxpayers can realize the benefits going forward.
Reducing the size of government before the next election requires a reduced number of election districts to accommodate the smaller board. These districts must be created before the May 2012 filing deadline for candidates. HB 5187 addresses this reality by requiring any county having over 50,000 in population and having more than 21 commissioners to map out new districts within 30 days of the effective date of the new law. Generally, the Michigan Constitution provides that new laws become effective 90 days after the legislature adjourns for the year. Laws passed this legislative session subject to the 90 day requirement will become effective around March 30, 2012. HB 5187's 30 day requirement insures new districts will exist in time for the May 2012 filing deadline.
HB 5187 fixes another problem facing the county by changing the make-up of the committee that draws election districts. It changes the current rules that allow unelected, partisan party operatives to determine election districts and replaces it with the model long used by the State of Michigan for drawing its own legislative and Congressional districts. HB 5187 designates are local, elected legislative body as the board to perform the function. It is a clear improvement that makes elected officials directly accountable to voters responsible for the process.
As noted, unelected partisan political operatives currently play the pivotal role in re-districting. They are not elected by and not accountable to voters. The danger in this is illustrated by recent events in Oakland County, where one a party chair, a person who under current law was to be on the county apportionment commission, and one of his executive assistants, was charged by a Grand Jury with multiple felony offenses for criminal activity directly related to the conduct of the county’s last general election. One partisan operative faced six felony counts, the other one faced nine. Had the former party chair not chosen to resign before his conviction, he would have been legally authorized to participate in the adoption of the 25 board member district plan and would have cast the out-come determining vote. Our county voters had no option to stop his participation, other than to "hope" that a person charged with multiple felonies related to attempts to illegally influence an election, resigned. The fact that that party operative, who today stands as a convicted felon for his conduct, did resign, doesn’t change the need for the system to be fixed.
Elected officials who engage in questionable conduct can be held accountable by voters. They can be turned out by voters, not just party bosses, via ordinary election or special recall election. County party chairs are not subject to that process. Officials who perform redistricting should be accountable to voters. Having the local elected commission stand accountable for the districts they create is a superior means to achieve this objective. HB 5187 allows for this reform.
Oakland County voters adopted the Optional Unified Form of County Government to reform county government. It is appropriate that they be able to use the state-model process for redistricting.