Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners (Jan. 20, 2010): An uncharacteristically brief meeting that lasted less than an hour included an update on the search for a new county administrator, a report on the Wireless Washtenaw project, and a eulogy for county planning.
Conan Smith, who serves on the executive committee that’s leading the search to replace retiring county administrator Bob Guenzel, announced that only one person would be interviewed for the job at Thursday’s working session: Verna McDaniel, deputy county administrator. She is the only internal candidate for the job – about a dozen external candidates applied, but they won’t be interviewed at this time, Smith said.
In other updates, Wes Prater – the board’s liaison to the Washtenaw County Road Commission – reported that a recent survey of 111 county bridges revealed 40% are deficient, and nearly 20 are classified as critical. That survey does not include bridges that are the responsibility of cities within the county – like the East Stadium bridges in Ann Arbor.
And though there was no discussion of it at Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners also voted to dissolve a review board for the sheriff’s department – an issue they’d talked about at last week’s administrative briefing.
County Administrator Interview
Wednesday was the application deadline for the job of county administrator, which had been posted on Jan. 11. At the board meeting Wednesday evening, Conan Smith – chair of the Ways & Means Committee, on which all commissioners serve – updated the board on their searach process to replace Bob Guenzel, who late last year announced plans to retire. Smith, along with board chair Rolland Sizemore Jr. and Jessica Ping, who’s chair of the board’s working session, are leading the search process.
The job posting indicated that an internal candidate would be considered, and deputy administrator Verna McDaniel has been viewed as a strong contender for the job. Since no other internal candidates applied, Smith said the board would be interviewing only McDaniel at Thursday’s working session. All applications from candidates outside of the organization would be “held in abeyance,” he said, pending the outcome of that interview.
At Wednesday’s board meeting, Ping passed around a list of interview questions for commissioners to review. McDaniel’s interview is the main item on the agenda for the working session, which is open to the public and includes two opportunities for public comment. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Washtenaw County administration building, 220 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor.
McDaniel has served as deputy administrator since 2007. She has previously held other positions within the county government, including as director of human resources.
Smith characterized the search timeline as aggressive. A vote on the hire is possible as soon as Feb. 3. Guenzel has said he’ll stay through mid-May, to provide a transition period for the next administrator.
Planning Advisory Board Dissolved
One of several actions taken at Wednesday’s meeting that received no discussion was a resolution to dissolve the Washtenaw County planning advisory board.
The planning advisory board was a group created in 2002 to replace the county planning commission, which was dissolved at that time. Since then, the county has continued to cut back on its planning staff and activities. In the recent two-year budget cycle, the office of strategic planning – led by Tony VanDerworp – has been transformed into the office of economic development and energy. There were seven jobs in strategic planning, including two that were vacant. Economic development and energy employs four people, including VanDerworp, for a net decrease of three jobs.
There were actually three resolutions needed to deal with the advisory board’s dissolution: 1) a resolution eliminating the board, 2) a resolution amending three county ordinances that reference the board, and 3) a resolution amending two county policies the refer to the board.
Just before the vote, commissioner Jeff Irwin said he wanted to “give a bit of a eulogy” to the county’s planning efforts. For decades, the county had taken an active role in strategic planning, he said, despite no statutory obligation to do so. There is a sadness to losing that, Irwin said. He hoped that in the future, commissioners could discuss how the county might fulfill that role again.
Later in the meeting, commissioners passed another resolution that had been the final action of the planning advisory board: Accepting the advisory board’s comments on the city of Milan master plan update, and authorizing the county clerk to convey those comments to Milan officials.
James McFarlane, who manages the county’s information technology operations, gave a brief update on the Wireless Washtenaw project. Bob Wolff – president of 20/20 Communications, which has a contract with the county to provide the service – attended the meeting, but did not give a presentation.
McFarlane said the vision was to deploy wireless, high-speed Internet access countywide. In 2006, the county contracted with 20/20 Communications of Ann Arbor to handle the project. The company initially put up three pilot projects in Ann Arbor, Saline and Manchester – to test the system in urban, suburban and rural areas, McFarlane said.
Today, service is provided in those three communities as well as Scio and Sylvan townships, he said, covering a total of roughly 100 square miles. About 1,000 residents use the free service, and there are 540 paid subscribers.
Over the past couple of years, 20/20 has faced difficulty getting financing for the project, McFarlane said. The business recently applied for a $4.2 million grant/loan available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and is in a “holding and waiting pattern” until they receive word on that funding, he said.
In response to a query from commissioner Ken Schwartz, McFarlane clarified that a recent federal award of $33 million had been made to a different service provider – Ann Arbor-based Merit Network, a nonprofit that will be building a 955-mile fiber optic network for broadband service in the state’s underserved counties.
Asked by Schwartz how much funding the Wireless Washtenaw project needs, McFarlane said $10 million – $2 million to build out service in the rural areas, and $8 million to serve the urban parts of the county. The $4.2 million federal grant/loan would cover 260 square miles in mostly rural and outlying areas, he said.
Commissioner Jessica Ping said she’d fielded a lot of questions about the project, and asked that McFarlane set up a meeting with township supervisers to give an update.
Commissioner Jeff Irwin clarified that 20/20 hadn’t met the terms of its contract with regard to the build-out timeline, but that the county had decided to stick with them anyway – a decision he said he agreed with, since service is being provided for a portion of county residents. He asked whether other providers had approached the county offering alternatives.
McFarlane said they’d had discussions with other vendors, but that 20/20 was a local company and had invested $2 million in the project. He said the county staff wanted to give them the opportunity to get federal funding. Irwin said that if they weren’t successful, he hoped the county would be able to find an alternative.
Schwartz asked if other options already existed for service in the areas that Wireless Washtenaw serves. McFarlane reported that satellite and wireless cards were available, but that service was spotty. For a lot of residents, he said, Wireless Washtenaw was the most viable option.
Schwartz said that if 20/20 can’t perform under the terms of its contract, the county should look for other solutions. Acknowledging that some of the financing issues and the condition of the economy had been out of the company’s control, Schwartz said that even so, the county shouldn’t be its guarantor.
Law Enforcement Citizens Review Board Dissolved
In an action that received no discussion on Wednesday, the board also voted to dissolve the Washtenaw County’s law enforcement citizens review board. Commissioners had formed the board in 2006 as a forum to voice concerns over then-sheriff Dan Minzey, and to provide additional oversight to the sheriff’s department. Members were appointed by the board of commissioners.
Sheriff Jerry Clayton, elected in November of 2008, has proposed setting up an advisory board for his department, in place of the review board.
Though there was no discussion among commissioners on Wednesday, they did talk about the resolution at their Jan. 13 administrative briefing – a meeting to review the upcoming agenda. At that meeting, commissioners Jeff Irwin and Barbara Levin Bergman voiced concerns about setting up an advisory board that would be internal to the sheriff’s department, saying there should be additional outside oversight.
Commissioners Leah Gunn noted that Clayton is a separately elected official, and said she trusted him to take care of things in his department. Bergman said she’s simply asking for him to tell commissioners how he’ll address complaints. It’s a matter of accountability, she said. Commissioner Mark Ouimet said they should be asking for the same thing from every department.
Irwin noted that the majority of the review board members seemed to agree that the group should be dissolved. It had been created out of a broken relationship with the former sheriff, Irwin added, because Minzey’s advisory board had essentially become a cheerleader for him.
Rolland Sizemore Jr., the board’s chair, said there were broader issues that the commissioners needed to discuss with Clayton, including staffing levels at the jail and the cost of county road patrols. That latter issue was critical, he said, because townships will need to be putting millages on the ballot to cover the cost of contracting with the sheriff’s department for patrols, but they didn’t yet know how much funding they needed.
Ken Schwartz said it wasn’t unreasonable to ask for more accountability from the sheriff, given that the county had paid more than $5 million to settle lawsuits under the former sheriff. [In September of 2009, the board approved a $1.375 million deal to settle two lawsuits related to the 2006 death of Clifton Lee Jr. in the West Willow neighborhood of Ypsilanti Township. They had previously paid $4 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the heirs of Clifton Lee, who died after a struggle with sheriff’s deputies; his brother, Bruce Lee, was injured. Most of the settlement was covered by the county's insurance.]
Present: Barbara Levin Bergman, Leah Gunn, Jeff Irwin, Mark Ouimet, Ronnie Peterson, Jessica Ping, Wes Prater, Ken Schwartz, Conan Smith
Absent: Kristin Judge, Rolland Sizemore Jr.
Next board meeting: The next regular meeting is Wednesday, Feb. 3, 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.