Clerks have a role in county administration

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 have many and varied responsibilities, some assigned directly to the office by the Michigan Constitution and other statutes, and others determined jointly with the county board of commissioners. Ken VerBurg, MSU professor emeritus, talks about some of the financial duties in his 2007 edition of Guide to Michigan County Government, and discusses the impacts of a couple of court cases on those roles. We’ll talk later about other administrative arrangements that have developed over the years. 

VerBurg says, “The responsibility of the county clerk in county fiscal affairs is not one the legislature added somewhere along the line. The office of clerk has been responsible for recording the expenditure of funds almost from the beginning of Michigan counties.

The responsibility of county clerks to maintain the expenditure records has been somewhat uncertain in counties that have a county controller. Controllers for a time asserted that the county controller act charged them with this duty. But in recent years, some county clerks challenged this interpretation. They argued that the clerk’s responsibility in this regard is not lessened by the controller statute. A court case, Gogebic County Clerk v. Gogebic Board of Commissioners, (1980) decided the issue in that county. But the issue surfaced elsewhere. A case in Ottawa County (Ottawa Clerk v. Ottawa County Board of Commissioners), where the county clerk sued the board of commissioners, produced a definitive guideline for this issue. (1987) 

In Gogebic, the court of appeals ruled that organizing under the county controller act did not undo the clerk’s responsibility to maintain the books and accounts as stated in the law. In Ottawa the question had a slightly different twist. The question was argued around the question of which office should maintain the files of invoices being received for payment and which office should prepare the checks. The Michigan Supreme Court held that while the statutes require the clerk to keep a book of claims against the county and present those to the board of commissioners, the law does not require the county clerk to review, approve, or possess the bills and invoices. And so the court concluded that these duties should be assigned in accordance with a decision by the board of commissioners in each county. It then ruled that a board of commissioners could assign to either office the responsibilities to process the accounts payable and prepare the warrants or checks for signature by the treasurer. It turned out to be a Solomon- like decision because the issue has not surfaced since that time. 

Still, in counties that have neither a controller, board of auditors, nor a county executive, county clerks handle these accounting duties. They maintain the expenditure records for the various county departments and issue periodic reports to the boards of commissioners. Some clerks also provide the board with other financial services such as developing and monitoring the budget and preparing the books for auditing. But the ways clerks carry out these duties vary widely among the counties, depending on both the formal and informal arrangements each has developed.” 

A few counties in Michigan have chosen to “hire” the county clerk to do other tasks often assigned to a county administrator. This typically occurs in smaller, more rural counties that do not have, or perhaps have never had, a county administrator. The clerk is paid an additional sum above their clerk salary to, effectively, serve as a part time administrator. The clerk’s availability in the county building on a full time basis avoids one of the disadvantages of a truly part-time administrator not being available for some days of the week. Some have expressed a concern that a clerk’s responsibility to Constitutional and statutory responsibilities might at times conflict with their responsibilities to the board, but this appears to not be a significant problem for the counties utilizing this arrangement. 

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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