County government administrative structure, history—Part 1

Michigan county government was organized around the idea that popularly elected laypeople were the best form of local government. Later, needs started to shift toward a more central and professional public administration model.

Van Buren County courthouse. | Kurt H. Schindler

Van Buren County courthouse. | Kurt H. Schindler

County government has been a part of Michigan since 1837, when Michigan first became a state. The organization of counties and some of the basics of county government have changed little since then.

Michigan has had four constitutions. The first included a section on counties (Article VII section 4), as did the fourth (1963, Article VII, sections 1-16). In the 1830s government was created with a Jackson/Jeffersonian philosophy of local government.

Through the concept of a “citizen politician,” a system was implemented that relied on elected and often amateur officials. Thomas Jefferson referred to it as a government of volunteers and laypeople –common folk. Jefferson was the promoter of the Northwest Ordinance, which covered the Great Lakes area of the United States, established the public land survey system used in Michigan and that eventually lead to Michigan becoming the 26th state. When Michigan became a state, then-President Andrew Jackson’s outlook was that people did virtually everything for themselves. It was felt there was little reason that they should not also run government themselves. So government was set up to be run by those elected to office with no special qualifications.

Today, the current system of county government still retains many of the traits that were built on those values. Later innovations lead to hiring professional administrators, and having a stronger central administration form of government.

County government was originally organized to ensure there was a separation of financial duties, accountability and a trust in common folk elected by the people to serve.

Also, county government was not designed to be a local government nor a municipal government. Instead, county government is intended to be an extension of some powers of state government, only delivered locally. If county government did not exist, those services would be performed directly by state government. That is why county government powers are extremely limited.

In the 1830s, there was little need for central administration of county government. But as early as 1851 the Michigan Legislature passed Public Act 156 to provide county boards with the authority to hire employees to assist them in carrying out the day-to-day business of county government.

This early recognition that county government was becoming increasingly complex forced the management of county government to become equally sophisticated. This required some form of centralized oversight.

The ability for a county board to hire administrative staff has existed for a long time. But it didn’t really catch on until the 1970s and 1980s. In part two of this article, we will explore the five or six options counties have for administrative organization.

Michigan State University Extension provides New County Commissioner workshops which focus on this, and much more information for those who were just elected to their County Board of Commissioners. These workshops are done in partnership with the Michigan Association of Counties. Additional training for county officials will take place during 2015 going into much more detail on specific topics. Watch the MSU Extension events web page for these.

Read Part 2: County government administrative structure, administration today

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