Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners meeting (Jan. 6, 2010): Wednesday’s meeting of the board was spent mostly on procedural and governance issues, but the undercurrent of ongoing budget concerns was never far from the discussion.
The board loosened its rules regarding public commentary, discussed – but ultimately rejected – an attempt to change the flex account method for managing its own portion of the budget, and got an update on the search for a replacement for retiring county administrator Bob Guenzel.
A job posting will be made for that position on Monday, Jan. 11, with the possibility of making a new hire as early as Feb. 3.
The board also heard from an advocate for the homeless during public commentary, who urged the board to take more of a leadership role in addressing that issue.
Because it was the first meeting of the year, Larry Kestenbaum presided over the meeting until Rolland Sizemore was elected chair of the board. The county clerk chairs the year’s first meeting until a chair is elected.
By custom, the chair serves for two consecutive years. Rolland Sizemore Jr. was first elected as chair of the board a year ago – he was nominated again on Wednesday, prompting commissioner Conan Smith to ask, “Does he really want that job?” Sizemore was re-elected unanimously, followed by a round of applause from his colleagues.
Also re-elected unanimously: Mark Ouimet, board vice-chair; Conan Smith, chair of the Ways & Means Committee; Jessica Ping, chair of the working session; and Ken Schwartz, working session vice-chair.
The only dissenting vote cast during the elections was by Barbara Bergman, who voted against the re-election of Kristin Judge as vice-chair of the Ways & Means Committee. Bergman said that Judge had made a personal, unprovoked attack on her, and that it did not demonstrate leadership behavior. She did not elaborate. Judge was re-elected on an 9-1 vote (commissioner Ronnie Peterson was absent).
County Administrator Search
Rolland Sizemore Jr. gave an update on the search for a new county administrator. Bob Guenzel, who has served in that post since 1994, in December announced plans to retire in mid-May.
Sizemore said that he, Conan Smith and Jessica Ping met in mid-December to talk about a process. [The three commissioners hold the board's leadership positions: Sizemore is board chair; Smith is chair of the board's Ways & Means Committee; Ping chairs its working session.] The process set by that group – and approved by the board at Wednesday’s meeting – calls for the position to be posted online on Jan. 11, with candidate interviews to take place at the board’s Jan. 21 working session, which is open to the public.
There was some discussion about whether to update the job description, with a decision to handle via email this week any suggestions for change . [.pdf of current county administrator job description]
Ken Schwartz wondered whether the proposed timeline was too ambitious. But Wes Prater spoke about the need for urgency, given the budget situation. Even though they just passed the two-year budget last month, Prater said, they have a lot of work to do, including keeping an eye on revenue and adjusting the budget accordingly as the next two years unfold. Several others agreed that the process needed to move forward – a vote to approve the proposed timeline was unanimous.
Though anyone will be eligible to apply, the board is not conducting a broad search and it’s expected that there will be internal candidates for the job, including deputy county administrator Verna McDaniel. A vote on the new hire could happen as soon as the board’s Feb. 3 meeting.
Board Rules & Regulations
Approval of the board’s rules and regulations is an action item at the group’s first meeting of each year. This year, commissioner Jeff Irwin raised three issues.
Irwin proposed eliminating the requirement that public commentary for the Ways & Means Committee be related to an item on the agenda. This rule was imposed a year ago by the board, with Irwin and Rolland Sizemore Jr. dissenting. The Ways & Means Committee, on which the entire board serves, meets immediately prior to the regular board meeting. The meeting often lasts several hours.
From The Chronicle report of the Jan. 7, 2009 board meeting, when this rule was introduced:
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.
In fact, a member of the public did read from the phone book in 2009, in protest of the rule. At the board’s Dec. 2, 2009 meeting, Janelle Baranowski spent part of her time during public commentary reading from the “Violins” category of the yellow pages. She urged commissioners to change the rule, saying that otherwise she’d attend each meeting and do the same thing. “It’s a mighty thick phone book, so please don’t make me go there,” she said at the time.
On Wednesday, the board unanimously approved Irwin’s motion to strike the following sentence from their rules and regulations:
E. Comments from the public during Citizen Participation shall be germane to items on the agenda or the commenter shall be ruled out of order.
However, his colleagues were much less supportive of another motion: To increase the time allotted to public commentary during the Ways & Means Committee meeting from three minutes to five minutes. [A year ago, commissioner Conan Smith had proposed limiting commentary at Ways & Means to three minutes per speaker, rather than five. Previously, citizens were allotted five minutes each at both Ways & Means and the regular board meeting – there are two opportunities to speak at each of those meetings. The board approved Smith's motion, with Irwin and Sizemore dissenting.]
On Wednesday, Irwin proposed increasing the time limit back to five minutes. However, his motion was not seconded and did not move forward to a vote.
Irwin then expressed some reservations about the commissioners’ flex accounts. During budget discussions in 2009, commissioners addressed their own compensation. From The Chronicle’s report on the board’s June 3, 2009 meeting:
The commissioners first considered a resolution to cut their own piece of the budget by 11.3%, and to create “flex accounts” that would pool previous line items for per diem, travel, and convention/conference expenses. The budget calls for $3,550 per commissioner for these flex accounts. The total budget for commissioners after the reduction is $532,885, an amount that includes salaries ($177,387), consultant fees ($55,150 for a lobbyist in Lansing), fringe benefits ($41,979) and an amount to cover administrative expenses (called the Cost Allocation Plan, at $143,462), among other things. The resolution also includes new guidelines for administering the flex accounts.
This resolution is the third iteration of an attempt to cut the commissioners’ budget, following two resolutions presented at the board’s May 20 meeting that did not receive sufficient support to pass. There was little discussion on the issue at Wednesday’s meeting.
Outcome: The motion carried, with Barbara Levin Bergman, Leah Gunn and Jeff Irwin voting against it.
On Wednesday, Irwin described the new flex accounts as “a Rube Goldberg kind of solution to a problem that didn’t exist,” and said he’d vote against the rules and regulations as a whole if the flex accounts remained in place.
Kristin Judge said the flex accounts mean that commissioners are more accountable for their spending than in the past, and that she plans to disclose her spending publicly. As an example, she said that previously there was no limit on the amount of per diems that commissioners could request. Now, their spending on per diems or other items can’t exceed $3,550, unless they get board approval for additional funds. If some commissioners have money in their account that they don’t spend, others can request to use those funds.
Wes Prater noted that the commissioners had done their part in reducing their portion of the budget. But Irwin responded by saying the amount of the budget wasn’t an issue – it was the methodology for managing it. Smith reasoned that the change simply added more flexibility, allowing commissioners to spend their allocated dollars based on their own priorities. He said they would receive quarterly reports throughout the year, and if the new system didn’t work, they could change it.
Agreeing with Irwin, Barbara Bergman moved to amend the rules to remove the following sections:
2. Should a Commissioner choose not to expend his/her full share, the balance will revert to a sub account of the CFA known as the ‘General Flex Account Fund” (GFAF), which may be used by other Commissioners once they have exceeded their allotted amount.
6. Commissioners must obtain majority Board approval to draw from the GFAF, once their allotments have been depleted.
The motion failed, with support from only four commissioners; Bergman, Irwin, Leah Gunn and Mark Ouimet.
The board then approved its rules and regulations, as amended, with Irwin and Smith dissenting.
Items for Future Discussion
Several commissioners raised issues that they’d like to bring back for further discussion at future meetings.
Prater called for a look at the county’s internal financial controls. Given the budget situation – the county faces declining tax revenues and had to cut expenses to deal with a projected $30 million deficit in 2010 and 2011 – he said that having tight controls would be even more critical in the coming years. He clarified that he wasn’t saying there was anything wrong with the county’s current financial management.
Kristin Judge asked that the board have a discussion to set priorities. She also asked that the working sessions begin to include discussions about policy changes. Board rules dictate that policy changes be first introduced at working sessions, she said, adding that policy discussions aren’t typically initiated at those meetings, which often focus on staff reports.
Conan Smith said he’d like to examine the employee compensation structure, looking specifically at the equity between union and non-union compensation. He noted that this issue arose during the 2009 budget discussions.
Leah Gunn asked that they revisit the issue of getting the board out of the Money Purchase Pension Plan (MPPP). [Commissioners are the only county employees still participating in this defined contribution plan. Other county employees have been moved to the Washtenaw County Employees’ Retirement System, known as WCERS, a defined benefit plan.] A resolution to eliminate the county’s contribution for commissioners to the MPPP was pulled from the board’s Nov. 18, 2009 agenda, at Wes Prater’s request. Prater had asked that the item be moved to the board’s Jan. 20, 2010 meeting.
Several commissioners said they hope to discuss ways to reorganize county departments and services, in light of budget cuts. Also related to the budget, Mark Ouimet said they all needed to be sensitive to revenue projections in the coming months. It was important for both the current and future county administrators to track revenues closely and keep the board informed, he said, because that would set all of the board’s actions in motion. They need to be aware of what they can and can’t do, he said, based on county revenues.
Two people spoke during the time set aside for public commentary.
Brian Nord: Speaking on behalf of the homeless advocacy group MISSION, Nord thanked civil rights attorney David Blanchard, University of Michigan law student Jen Coleman and the Michigan ACLU for their work on behalf of Caleb Poirier. Poirier – who is part of the local Camp Take Notice – had been arrested for trespassing on public property. Poirier had just been trying to survive, and his situation is the tip of the iceberg, Nord said. Though the county prosecutor dropped the charges against Poirier, Nord wondered how much money in general was being spent to prosecute the homeless. It’s indicative of a system with misplaced priorities, he said. Support from the public has been strong – people are ready to get “off their keesters” and take action, Nord said. The issue deserves a more coordinated community response, he said, and Nord urged commissioners to take a leadership role. Referring to the county’s Blueprint to End Homelessness, “if the blueprint is still our guide,” he concluded, “then it needs an architect and it needs a carpenter.”
Tom Partridge: Speaking during the two times allotted for public commentary, Partridge identified himself as a Democrat and a potential candidate for elected office in 2010. He urged commissioners to start making substantive reforms, including an expansion of the board and the creation of positions that are elected on a countywide basis, rather than within specific districts within the county. He said the board’s chair and vice-chair should be elected to those positions by voters, not by the board. And reflecting on the fact that no county or city leaders had appeared recently on any of the three major TV network’s weekend public interest programs, Partridge said that showed there was a lack of leadership among local officials. Regarding the search for a new county administrator, Partridge said the person should be hired on a contract basis, with the goal of making that job an elected one, as it is in nearby counties. As he often does, Partridge called for an expansion of countywide and regional transportation, health insurance, lifelong education, affordable housing and aid for the homeless.
Response to Public Commentary
Commissioner Jeff Irwin thanked Brian Nord for his comments on the plight of the homeless, and said he was glad that county prosecutor Brian Mackie had used his authority to drop charges against Poirier. Irwin said he agreed with Nord about the use of resources – he noted that county administrator Bob Guenzel had worked hard on the Blueprint to End Homelessness and on the building of the Delonis Center, a homeless shelter, but said there are now more people in need than there are resources to help them. The community needs to come together, Irwin concluded, and that can only happen if people like Nord speak out.
Larry Kestenbaum, Washtenaw County clerk, was presiding over the meeting during Partridge’s first public commentary turn. Kestenbaum clarified that the board did not have the authority to make the kind of changes that Partridge suggested, in terms of expanding the board and changing the way that members were elected. State law requires that an apportionment committee look at the composition of the board every 10 years – that process will likely begin in 2011, Kestenbaum said.
Present: Barbara Levin Bergman, Leah Gunn, Jeff Irwin, Kristin Judge, Mark Ouimet, Jessica Ping, Wes Prater, Ken Schwartz, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith
Absent: Ronnie Peterson
Next board meeting: The next regular meeting is Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010 at 6:30 p.m. at the County Administration Building, 220 N. Main St. The Ways & Means Committee meets first, followed immediately by the regular board meeting. [confirm date] (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. No advance sign-up is required.