Elected county executives and county home rule in Michigan: Part two

Alternatives to general law county structure.

Provisions for county home rule and an elected executive are part of Michigan’s Constitution. Part one of this article discussed the process of forming a charter and also the legislative process that led to a couple of counties making the change from general law counties to charter counties.

Ken VerBurg, MSU Professor Emeritus, in this excerpt from the 2007 edition of his book, Guide to Michigan County Government, tells us more about required contents of a charter and some of the impacts it has on the board of county commissioners.  The book is an MSU publication, and is currently being updated. Purchasing information will be announced here in an MSU Extension news article.

Requirements

The  charter  commission  does  not  have  a  free  hand  in  what  the  document provides.  Indeed, the act states, “…the general statutes and local acts of this state regarding counties and county officers shall continue in effect except to the extent that this act permits the charter to provide otherwise, if the charter does in fact provide otherwise.” For example, the county charter must provide for the

election of a sheriff, prosecuting attorney, clerk, treasurer, and register of deeds. Moreover, the charter must continue the road commission and retain the power of the county commission to combine the office of clerk and register of deeds. Wayne County, however, eliminated the road commission by charter amendment, transferring its duties and responsibilities to the Office of Public Service. (This action was done following an amendment to the statute, an action that the Michigan Court of Appeals subsequently approved.) And the charter cannot contradict existing statutes unless the charter county act specifically allows a different rule. Obviously, this requirement could give rise to a number of questions that the courts would have to resolve.

The most significant change that charter county government brings about, we believe, is that the executive or administrative functions are removed from the board of commissioners and placed in the office of the county executive. The county commission then becomes more purely a legislative body. Related to this is the creation of a platform for political leadership. The county executive becomes a principal spokesperson for all of county government, but especially for the executive division of the government.

We might also expect a county charter to provide for the centralization of the staff functions such as budgeting, accounting, personnel, purchasing, and properties management.  And the county charter would likely require the executive to be responsible for those line departments that the law allows to be assigned to that office. As noted, some sorting out will be necessary before all the questions that are likely to arise can be answered. The unanswered questions are not likely to be answered until more counties organize under the law and bring their questions to court or the state legislature.”

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, and extensive footnotes to constitutional and statutory information. The book is being updated so information and statutory notations are current. The Fifth Edition is expected in early 2017.

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