County Board of Commissioners (Jan. 7, 2009) In an uncharacteristically short session, members of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners were sworn in. They then elected new leaders, adjusted their rules to cut the amount of time given to public comment – and adjourned in less than an hour.
Rolland Sizemore Jr., whose district primarily covers Ypsilanti Township, was elected to chair the commission, replacing Jeff Irwin, who represents District 11 in Ann Arbor. Both are Democrats. Any drama that occurred over the change in leadership happened behind the scenes – no dissenting votes were cast in the election of any officers on Wednesday night.
The meeting began with County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum officiating, a role he maintained until after the board chair was elected. Judge David Swartz of the Washtenaw County Trial Court swore in the nine commissioners in attendance – absent were Ronnie Peterson and Leah Gunn, who was reported ill by fellow commissioner Barbara Levin Bergman.
Each commissioner said a few words after the swearing-in ceremony, and all spoke about the financial challenges facing the county in the coming year – county officials had to make cuts to their 2009 budget to deal with a $15 million shortfall, and difficult decisions will be made as they look to 2010-11. Even so, many expressed optimism that the difficulties could be overcome. Jeff Irwin stressed the importance of continuing to invest in areas that would spur economic development, such as transit and energy. That approach, he said, would create jobs and drive a “Keynesian recovery,” rather than having the local economy “fall victim to the waves that are rising around us.”
Conan Smith, after joking that he was “shocked and amazed” that the citizens of Washtenaw County had sent him back to the commission, said it would take every ounce of intellect and energy to deal with the financial challenges, but that they weren’t insurmountable. Mark Ouimet, who thanked his family and constituents, said they needed to look at government differently than they had in the past.
Election of Officers
Though Jeff Irwin, at a previous board meeting, had expressed a desire to remain board chair, Mark Ouimet nominated Rolland Sizemore Jr. No other nominations were offered up and Sizemore was elected on a voice vote with no discussion or dissent. Jessica Ping nominated Mark Ouimet for vice-chair, and he too was elected on a voice vote with no discussion or dissent. Ouimet and Ping are the only two Republican commissioners, representing District 1 (western Washtenaw) and District 3 (Saline and several townships in southwest Washtenaw), respectively.
Later in the meeting, Wes Prater made the remaining nominations, which were all approved by voice vote with no discussion or dissent: Conan Smith, chair of the Ways & Means Committee; Kristin Judge, vice chair of Ways & Means (from District 7, Pittsfield Township); Jessica Ping as chair of the board’s Working Session; and Ken Schwartz (District 2, northeastern Washtenaw) as vice chair.
As noted in a Stopped.Watched. item, Smith is the only Ann Arbor commissioner who was elected an officer on Wednesday. Previously, Ann Arbor commissioners chaired both the board (Irwin) and the Ways & Means Committee (Bergman), where much of the board’s business is conducted. Also of note: Ouimet is the first Republican elected to a county board leadership position in several years. (Ouimet told The Chronicle that he was informed it had been more than 20 years – we are as yet unable to confirm that time frame.)
The board also adjusted some of its rules and regulations. Most notably, a proposal by Conan Smith – and approved by the board, with only Jeff Irwin and Rolland Sizemore Jr. dissenting – cut the time alloted to each public commenter at the Ways & Means Committee to 3 minutes, down from the current 5 minutes. He also proposed, and the board (aside from Irwin and Sizemore) agreed, to require that public comment during Ways & Means address only items on the agenda. Currently, there are no such limitations.
Smith said his goal was to make the meetings more efficient, and that the public still had the opportunity to speak before the entire board with no change in the current time limit or topic rules. (Public commentary sessions are at the beginning and end of both the Ways & Means Committee and board meetings, which are held back-to-back.) He said that the public still had a total of 16 minutes to speak over those four periods, down from the current 20 minutes.
Curt Hedger, the county’s corporate counsel, said he thought there might be free speech issues associated with limiting the topics of public commentary, and that he’d check on that.
Irwin said he thought people should be able to read the phone book for 5 minutes if they wanted to, though he’d prefer they didn’t. He said the board generally gets very few people at its public comment sessions, and that he didn’t want to restrict it in any way. “We need to keep our doors as open as possible.” He also noted that the Ways & Means Committee meeting can last for two hours or more before the board meeting begins, thus forcing someone to wait who wants to speak on a topic that’s not on the agenda.
Smith said he believes citizens should be treated more like staff, and that he would be willing to allocate them even more than 5 minutes if they contacted him before the meeting and if it were appropriate to the agenda.
Bergman said she’d like to see that approach codified into the commission’s rules and regulations. She also wondered how citizens would know that they could get this additional time, and urged the board to do some kind of outreach about it.
Interestingly, given the discussion, no one spoke at the board’s final public comment session of the evening. The first public comment session early in the meeting had two speakers: Tom Partridge and Ken Siler.
Partridge admonished the commission to pay more attention to the situation of the homeless in Washtenaw County, urging them to open the doors to public buildings so that homeless people would have a place to stay on cold, snowy evenings like this one. He said they should consider meeting outside in the cold, just like the homeless. He also wanted the commission to pass an emergency resolution calling for affordable, accessible transportation and health care throughout the county.
Siler was recently reelected president of the Washtenaw County Farm Bureau, and distributed a list of resolutions by the bureau stating what they’d like to accomplish. He said he hoped the commission would support their work, as the bureau hoped to support the commission.
Liaison Report: Road Commission
After the first public commentary, Mark Ouimet gave a liaison report from the Washtenaw Road Commission. He said federal funds might be available for road work this year, and that the commission was preparing a list of roads that were a high priority for repair. He said that David Rutledge had been elected chair, and Doug Fuller is vice chair. Fred Veigel is the road commission’s third board member.
Wes Prater, who previously served on the road commission, said the staff had started working on a comprehensive preservation and maintenance plan in 2007, but that it wasn’t yet done. He expressed frustration that he hadn’t been able to get a clear answer about its progress, and said the county commission might need to pass a resolution to push it along. (The county board appoints road commissioners, but has no real authority over their actions.) Prater said the plan was important to have soon, given the possible availability of federal funds.
Present: Barbara Levin Bergman, Jeff Irwin, Kristin Judge, Mark Ouimet, Jessica Ping, Wes Prater, Ken Schwartz, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith
Absent: Leah Gunn, Ronnie Peterson
Next board meeting: Wednesday, Jan. 21 at 6:30 p.m. at the County Administration Building, 220 N. Main St. [confirm date] The Ways & Means Committee meets first, followed immediately by the regular board meeting. (Though the agenda states that the regular board meeting begins at 6:45 p.m., it usually starts much later – times vary depending on what’s on the agenda.) Public comment sessions are held at the beginning and end of each meeting.