Many worried people are walking around the Howell area. Their despair is not rooted in the coronavirus. Their somber expressions reflect the dismay they feel because they do not have an elected representative on the Livingston County Board of Commissioners.
Their burden will rest heavy on their souls for many months, until November actually when their Thanksgiving blessings will surely include gratitude for no longer being without a county commissioner that they can call their own.
Okay. So I made that all up. Virtually no one in the Howell area knows that they are without a county commissioner, and even fewer care. If offered a million bucks, most county residents could not name a member of the nine-member board, much less the one who represents them.
A little background. Earlier this year, Don Parker — the county commissioner who represents Howell City, Howell Township and Cohoctah Township — surprised those paying attention by resigning from the board. By law, the remaining county commissioners had a tight window to appoint his temporary replacement.
The eight commissioners couldn’t come to an agreement, splitting repeatedly 4-4 until a statutory deadline passed, which means now there will have to be a special election, which will not be complete until November, barely two months before Parker’s two-year term was going to end anyway.
On the August and November ballots there will be a slightly confusing situation where Howell-area voters will be deciding two county commissioner races: one for the remainder of Parker’s existing term, and the second for the full two-year term that starts in January 2021. Howell voters will be up to the task.
Not all are so sanguine. There has been some tissue-twisting about the horrors facing the county’s mid-section as it endures being without an elected representative for half-a-year or so. Taxation without representation, and all that, which is ironic since this county board risks severe carpel tunnel pain for the vigorous way it pats its own back for having the lowest tax rate in the state.
Critics of the stalemate also raise the apocalyptic specter of 4-4 votes that will hamstring the county’s well-being. Again, ironic, since one of the biggest criticisms of the commissioners is that it is usually peopled entirely with Republicans and, thus, marches in solidarity without the bother of dissenting voices.
I, for one, am glad that the county commissioners couldn’t make a choice. This is not a decision they should be making. I say that without casting any aspersion on their abilities or wisdom. But they lack a critical quality. Not one of them lives in Howell Township, Howell City, or Cohoctah Township. As such, they shouldn’t be deciding who represents the people who do. That’s what elections are for.
The idea of elected bodies filling vacancies on their boards is a troubling one. These are not quilting societies or country clubs. They are local versions of legislative branches, the most important segment of our democratic republic. It’s where the people decide who represents them. Every safeguard should be taken to protect that sacred right.
During my four decades in community journalism, I witnessed numerous instances where a school board member or a city councilman or whomever would time a resignation so that their colleagues could appoint a successor, thus giving the appointee a substantial leg-up in the ensuing election. It smacks of insider baseball, and it should be avoided whenever possible. The decision belongs to the electorate.
So, what to do when an elected representative leaves office mid-term?
Above all, be realistic. Short-term it isn’t that big of a problem. In this case, the eight remaining county commissioners are more than qualified to carry on with their duties. They are part-time elected officials whose job is oversight and budgetary. Qualified people run the day-to-day show at the county.
The concern about four-four votes is a manufactured worry. Let me know how many critical issues are held in limbo over the next few months because of a deadlocked board. I’m predicting there won’t be any.
If the vacancy is keeping people up at night, there are alternatives that would discourage favoritism and political hanky panky.
One would be to change state law to allow for a quicker time frame to elect a temporary replacement. Start the clock running as soon as the resignation is tendered. Perhaps even make the elections non-partisan, put everyone who qualifies on a run-off ballot and then, maybe a week or ten days later, let the top two vote getters face off.
If a board must fill a vacancy, make it a requirement that the person appointed cannot run for the office at the next election. In that way, someone qualified but not interested in political expediency could be selected.
Such a system reduces the temptation for elected boards to play political games. It also protects them from public skepticism.
That would be a benefit for the county board which already has to deal with the impression, fairly or not, that things are already incestuous. Parker resigned because he decided to apply for the job of county administrator, which became open after the death of Ken Hinton.
As chair of the county board, Parker clearly knows more about county government than the average Joe. But his career history has no evidence of managing a workforce and budget as large and complex as Livingston County government.
The job potentially pays well north of $100,000, and might normally require a resume more accomplished than Parker’s. Reasonable people could wonder if, before kissing his $18,000-a-year chairmanship job farewell, he might have counted potential votes among his Republican colleagues on the board who will make the hiring decision.
Maybe such talks never occurred. But the suspicion will always be there. And it would be worse if those county commissioners were choosing a replacement who could be the deciding vote on the hiring of the next county administrator.
This is all wild speculation. And it can be lessened now that the electorate, and not fellow commissioners, will be choosing Parker’s successor.