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Macomb County

November 7, 2012

Appeals decision better defines county government

By Robert Guttersohn
C & G Staff Writer

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Kathy Vosburg, the chairwoman of the Macomb County Board of Commissioners, speaks during a press conference Oct. 31 following a Michigan Court of Appeals decision that helped define the roles of the new county government. The decision gave the board final approval for most county contracts.

MOUNT CLEMENS — Since Macomb County’s charter went into effect in January 2011, the two parts of the county government — the executive and legislative branches — have sought clarity on their roles in the new county government.

On Oct. 30, a Michigan Court of Appeals ruling provided that clear picture. The appeals court gave the commissioners the power of final approval for most of the county’s financial dealings. It also placed in the hands of County Executive Mark Hackel the administering of all county contracts, which previously fell to the department heads.

As of print time, Hackel’s office still had not decided whether to appeal the decision to the Michigan Supreme Court.

The events leading to the decision came from an ordinance passed by the board in early 2012, requiring that the commissioners approve most of the county’s contracts, regardless of the amounts. Hackel vetoed the ordinance, but the board overrode the veto. In February 2012, Hackel sued the Board of Commissioners. The circuit court sided with Hackel, but the Michigan Court of Appeals overturned that decision.

The board is touting the decision as a win for transparency. “Today begins a new day for the taxpayers of Macomb County,” said Kathy Vosburg, the chairwoman of the board. “If (the circuit court) decision would have remained, it would have allowed the county’s publicly funded contracts and major purchasing decisions to the executive behind closed doors.”

Hackel and others in the executive’s office are saying the decision will bog down decision-making — something voters wanted changed when they voted for the charter.

“This is going to cause a concern for us, as far as adding another layer of government,” Hackel said.

Al Lorenzo, deputy county executive, called the ordinance a power grab by the board.

“When I read the word ‘transparency,’ I hear the word ‘control,’” Lorenzo said. “That’s the buzzword for control.”

Hackel added that no county contract had ever been called into question since he became executive in 2011.

Although the decision refers primarily to the 2012 purchasing ordinance, the board’s legal counsel Andrew Richner said the decision also sets legal precedence for future ordinances and resolutions passed by the board, like the Complete Streets resolution the commissioners are hoping to pass. The resolution would direct the Department of Roads to include bike lanes, crosswalks and other pedestrian-friendly amenities when constructing county roads. There had been debates between the board and the executive office on whether the board had the authority to do so.

“This case does not directly address the (Complete Streets) issue, but I think it does indirectly,” Richner said. “We think it is clear within the power of the commission to pass ordinances and resolutions.”

Hackel’s office did find a silver lining in the decision. The appeals court broadened the role of county executive, referring to it as “significant” in the contracting process. Simultaneously, the appeals court said “the commission plays a relatively passive role,” requiring only up-or-down votes from it.

Regardless, Hackel said he will be forced to hire more people to assist him in overseeing the expanded role.

“We didn’t ask for this, but that’s the role that was determined by the courts based upon the policy of the Board of Commissioners,” Hackel said.

Lorenzo offered a prediction that, when the board finally realizes the magnitude of the ordinance it passed, they’ll decided to amend it.

“When they find out what this really means, I think there will be phone calls to the commission saying, ‘You got to go change this thing,’” Lorenzo said.

But Vosburg said, if transparency slows down government decision making, so be it.

“Our form of government from the Founding Fathers intended to be a deliberate process,” Vosburg said. “It’s OK if it goes slow.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Robert Guttersohn at rguttersohn@candgnews.com or at (586)218-5006.