The role of county administrator: Part two

The “Guide to Michigan County Government”, a Michigan State University publication, is a great source of detailed information about the structure, function and services provided by counties in Michigan.

The role of county administrator: Part one introduced the role of county administrator and talked about relationships with county elected officials. In part two, Michigan State University Professor Emeritus Ken VerBurg talks more about the administrative role in the fourth edition of his MSU publication, “Guide to Michigan County Government”.

“County boards sometimes use the county administrator statute to create a position they call board secretary or board assistant. Although people in such positions may perform many of the same duties expected of a county administrator or coordinator, the board secretary title usually implies that the person only assists the board of commissioners as it oversees the budget, makes personnel decisions, and supervises various operations. Of course, controllers and administrators also assist the board and its committees, but have other duties as well.

The absence of a more specific designation of authority to administrative officers is not a problem, but it does mean that the board must craft the position through an adopted resolution and job description. Both of these form the authority for the person holding the job. If the resolution and job description are general rather than specific, the person may find himself or herself facing awkward situations occasionally. The absence of a detailed statute also means that the county administrator is limited to those powers and duties that the board itself may exercise and delegate. And for the person occupying the position, it means that the job security provisions of the controller position do not exist; that is, the person can be released with no more than a majority vote of the commissioners unless the employment contract provides something different such as advanced notice or severance package.

The county administrator position is attractive to many boards, in part because it does not carry with it some of the trappings of the controller position. And, for the elected county officials, it means that there will likely be less conflict over which officer has which duty. The county administrator alternative is also attractive to counties that previously have not had any kind of central administration because the county can develop the role gradually over time. Some county boards, for this reason, have selected a person with little or no prior administrative experience and given him or her only limited responsibilities at the outset. Then, as others in the county courthouse become accustomed to the role, the board gradually assigns other responsibilities.”

A hybrid version of county administrator also exists. Some counties use the administrator statute and then assign the full duties spelled out in the controller statute. The authority of the board of commissioners to create this type of position was upheld by the Michigan Supreme Court in 1987 (Ottawa Cty. Clerk v. Bd. Of Comm’rs, 407 N.W.2d 384, 428 Mich. 300).

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 update process is underway to be sure the information and statutory notations are current, with rollout of the fifth edition expected early this winter.

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