Counties in Northern Michigan continue the tradition of sharing and learning

Northern Michigan county commissioners meet regularly to learn about and discuss issues that impact county government.

The Michigan Northern Counties Association consists of about 32 member counties in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan. The group’s bylaws define their purpose as being “...dedicated to the improvement of county, municipal, state and federal governments…” The association works to achieve their mission through educational programs for commissioners, and the sharing of ideas between counties.

Counties who are members select a “delegate” and “alternate delegate” to participate in the meetings, which are held 8 times per year. There is also a dues structure in place, but expenses have been very low, so dues have been waived for several years.

The association meetings are typically held in Grayling, with one or two per year held at another location. These “off-site” meetings are generally tours of facilities and programs of interest to the member counties. In 2013, the association toured both county run and commercial recycling facilities. Previous years’ tours included a three county 911 call center and the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center.

Monthly meetings consist of a short business meeting, a legislative report from the Michigan Association of Counties and an educational program. Speakers representing companies providing services to counties through the Michigan Association of Counties and its Service Corporation also participate in many of the meetings.

Potential topics for the educational programs are discussed once a year, typically at the first meeting of the new calendar year. As a Government and Public Policy educator with Michigan State University Extension, I make arrangements for speakers to address the association on the identified topics. The topics are usually ones which are impacting county government currently, or are expected to impact county government in the not too distant future.

Speakers are selected for their expertise on a given topic. Sometimes university faculty members speak to the group. Often speakers are affiliated with state agencies, multi-county agencies, interest groups, and county staff and elected officials. Recent topics include the impact of the Affordable Care Act on counties, Great Lakes levels, building trust, Michigan trails, DNR public land management strategy and Michigan Prosperity Regions.

Other county officials are also welcome to attend. County sheriffs have attended when the subject was law enforcement-related, recycling leaders have participated in tours of county recycling facilities, and so on.

As a courtesy, state representatives and senators are sent copies of the monthly agendas. It is not unusual to have as many as two or three legislators attend, generally depending on the topic.

The association meetings have always included opportunities for question and answer with speakers, and occasionally some lively discussion among the commissioners. In recent years, agendas have been created to allow for more of this discussion. Commissioners appreciate opportunities to learn from their peers in other counties by discussing various ways those counties have addressed issues and problems. Most meetings are preceded by informal discussion between commissioners, with some arriving as much as 45 minutes to an hour before the meeting starts. 

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