County Board Trims Public Commentary

Also: Washtenaw continues negotiating Humane Society contract

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Jan. 4, 2012): The county board’s first meeting of the year was a combination of stasis and change.

Yousef Rabhi

County commissioner Yousef Rabhi, who was re-elected chair of the working session and successfully lobbied to keep public commentary time unchanged at those sessions. (Photos by the writer.)

Unchanged were the board officers – as is its custom, the board re-elected the same leaders from the previous year. Conan Smith retained his position as board chair, but did not use the meeting to continue the discussion he’d started in December regarding strategic planning for the county. Smith has proposed focusing county efforts on shoring up the county’s east side, an area that he has said is facing a “perfect storm of despair,” including high unemployment, low graduation rates and poor health.

Rather, the main action of the Jan. 4 meeting focused on significant changes regarding public commentary, as part of revisions to the board’s rules and regulations. The majority of commissioners voted to shorten the time available per speaking turn – from five to three minutes – and to eliminate one of two agenda slots for public commentary at its bi-monthly meetings. Commissioners Rolland Sizemore Jr., Ronnie Peterson and Felicia Brabec voted against the changes, but were in the minority.

Yousef Rabhi, who was re-elected chair of the working session, proposed an amendment to keep both public commentary slots in place at the working sessions. His amendment – which was supported unanimously by the board – also kept the five minutes alloted per speaker for public commentary at the working sessions.

An amendment to the rules proposed by Dan Smith was tabled. The change would give commissioners the option of abstaining from a vote. Wes Prater questioned the amendment, arguing that state law requires commissioners to vote on resolutions unless there’s a conflict of interest. It was eventually tabled until the second meeting in February, allowing the county attorney to research the legality of the proposed rule. In a follow-up query from The Chronicle, Smith indicated that he doesn’t intend to pursue the amendment.

Dan Smith was successful in another effort, however – an amendment he proposed to the board’s 2012 calendar. Commissioners voted to change the start time of working sessions to 6 p.m. and add the administrative briefing as the first agenda item. Previously, administrative briefings – held to review the board’s upcoming agenda – were held at 4 p.m. the week prior to a regular board meeting. It had been a difficult time of day for some commissioners, including Smith, to attend.

An issue not addressed at the Jan. 4 meeting was the status of the county’s negotiations with the Humane Society of Huron Valley. After the meeting, deputy county administrator Kelly Belknap told The Chronicle that the county had signed a one-month extension – at $29,000 – for HSHV to continue providing mandated animal control services for the county through January. The county’s previous contract with HSHV expired Dec. 31, and Belknap said negotiations continue to try to reach a longer-term agreement. Belknap said she was optimistic the two sides could reach a resolution, even if it required another temporary extension. Reached by email later in the week, HSHV executive director Tanya Hilgendorf indicated that she shared that optimism.

The Jan. 4 meeting was initially officiated by the Washtenaw County clerk, Larry Kestenbaum, who presided until the election of the board chair. Kestenbaum took the opportunity to give some tips on campaign finance reporting to commissioners and other potential candidates in the upcoming 2012 election. 

County Clerk: Tips for an Election Year

The Washtenaw County clerk – currently Larry Kestenbaum – leads the first meeting of each year for the board of commissioners, before officer elections are held.

Kestenbaum began the Jan. 4 meeting by noting that 2012 is an election year, and that all county commissioners and other county-level elected officials – including himself – would be up for re-election. The county has a fantastic roster of city and township clerks who’ll handle the process, he said, starting with the presidential primary in February.

There’s always tension between campaigning and governance, he said, adding that everyone around the board table had experience with that situation. [The exception would be Felicia Brabec, who was appointed to her seat in District 7 last October after the resignation of Kristin Judge.]

Felicia Brabec, Larry Kestenbaum

Washtenaw County commissioner Felicia Brabec (D-District 7) talks with county clerk Larry Kestenbaum before the Jan. 4, 2012 county board of commissioners meeting.

For anyone who’s running for office, Kestenbaum said he wanted to underline the importance of paying attention to campaign finance reporting, which is handled locally by his office. For example, he said, if a previous campaign has more than $1,000 in the bank, an annual statement is due at the end of this month.

Kestenbaum also clarified the reporting requirements for late contributions. If $200 or more is contributed to a campaign between the last campaign finance filing and the election, then it must be reported. This is the most frequently sanctioned violation of campaign finance law, he said. The fine accumulates daily, to a maximum of $2,000. Kestenbaum said that in the past, he has used his discretion and sometimes waived the fine. However, he said, he’s been informed that he doesn’t have the authority to do that.

Every time candidates file to run for office, they must sign a statement saying that they’re up to date with their campaign finance filings. If you haven’t reported some contributions, but sign the statement, you’re committing perjury, Kestenbaum said.

His final piece of advice related to a campaign’s treasurer. It’s possible for candidates to serve as treasurer of their own campaigns, “but it’s not a good idea,” Kestenbaum said. He added that he speaks with some experience on this issue, but did not elaborate.

[More information about campaign finance can be found on the county's website or on the state's campaign finance website. All commissioners have active campaign committees, as do several former candidates and candidates who have declared their intent to run in 2012. The latter category includes Democrats Andy Labarre and Christina Montague, who both plan to run for the seat in the new District 7, which covers an area on the east side of Ann Arbor, which is now represented by Democrat Barbara Bergman. Bergman is not seeking re-election.]

Officer Elections

Washtenaw County commissioners are elected to two-year terms, with elections for all 11 districts held in even-numbered years. [Redistricting, which was completed last year, will shrink the number of county districts to 9 for the upcoming election cycle and take effect at the start of the 2013 term.] The first meeting of each year is an organizational meeting, when the board’s primary business is electing officers and approving the board rules and regulations.

It’s been the board’s custom to elect commissioners to the same leadership roles for two consecutive years, starting with the first year of their two-year terms. This year was no exception, and all previous officers were re-elected unanimously. There were no competing nominations, and only congratulatory discussion.

The board unanimously re-elected Conan Smith (D-District 10) as board chair and Alicia Ping (R-District 3) as vice chair. Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) was re-elected chair of the board’s ways & means committee, with Dan Smith (R-District 2) re-elected vice chair. The working session chair is Yousef Rabhi (D-District 11), with Rob Turner (R-District 1) to serve as vice chair.

Before the officer elections but not during the official public commentary time, Thomas Partridge stood up and demanded an answer to a question he’d asked, saying it was pertinent to the election. He has frequently lobbied for the chair of the board to be elected by a vote of the general public, not by the board itself.

Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, informed commissioners that according to the board’s rules and regulations, the chair must be elected from among the commissioners. From the relevant section of the board’s rules and regulations [emphasis added]:

D. ORGANIZATIONAL MEETING:  At the first or regular meeting of the Board of Commissioners held in January of each year the Clerk/Register of the County shall call the meeting to order then shall call the roll of all elected Commissioners. The members of the Board elect shall take the oath of office as their first order of business, If a quorum is found to be present, the Board shall proceed to elect by ballot one of the Commissioners, elected and serving, as Chair. The Commissioner receiving six (6) votes of the members, elected and serving shall be the Chair of the Board.

Outcome: By a series of unanimous votes, all 2011 officers were re-elected to leadership roles on the board.

Board Rules & Regulations

At the first meeting of each year, the board approves its rules and regulations with revisions, if any. This year, three changes were proposed. [.pdf of original draft revisions to board rules & regulations]

One of the rule changes was uncontroversial, and yielded no discussion. It related to the eligibility of county employees for claiming per diem payments and mileage. Under previous rules adopted in 2011, no county employee could claim a per diem or mileage reimbursement for service on a county board, committee or commission. The rules adopted on Jan. 4, 2012 now apply that rule only to regular, benefitted county employees. This allows part-time county employees who receive no county benefits to receive a per diem and mileage payment. The rule does not apply to county commissioners – their per diem and mileage are handled under separate flex accounts, which were not changed.

Dan Smith

Commissioner Dan Smith holds up his hand to indicate the number of minutes available per speaker for public commentary. He was helping out county clerk Larry Kestenbaum, who officiated the start of the board of commissioners first meeting in 2012. By the end of the meeting, the board majority had voted to reduce public commentary time to three minutes.

The other two proposed rule changes considered at the Jan. 4 meeting dealt with public commentary. Commissioners spent much of their meeting discussing those changes to public commentary. The revisions shortened the time available per speaking turn and eliminated some of the agenda slots for public commentary.

Most significantly, the second of two opportunities for public commentary was proposed to be eliminated at three different meetings: the board meetings, the ways & means committee meetings and the working sessions. The corresponding times slated for commissioner response to public commentary at the end of those meetings were also proposed to be eliminated. Previously, public commentary and commissioner response were provided near the start and end of each meeting. The ways & means committee meetings and regular board meetings are held back-to-back, currently providing four opportunities for public commentary during the same evening.

In other revisions to the board’s rules and regulations, the five minutes alloted per speaker during general public commentary at the board meeting and working session was proposed to be reduced to three minutes each. The time alloted for commentary at public hearings (held on a specific topic) was proposed to be cut from five to three minutes per speaker.

Three minutes is already the current time alloted for public commentary at the board’s ways & means committee, where the bulk of the board’s business is conducted. Prior to 2009, ways & means public commentary was also five minutes. But at the board’s Jan. 7, 2009 meeting, commissioner Conan Smith proposed reducing it to three minutes. He won support for that resolution from the majority of the board, with dissent from commissioners Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) and Jeff Irwin, a Democrat from Ann Arbor who now serves in the state legislature.

At that same January 2009 meeting, Conan Smith also proposed a change requiring that public commentary during ways & means address only items on the agenda. That change also won support from the board, with dissent from Sizemore and Irwin. Previously, there had been no such limitations. A year later, at the board’s Jan. 6, 2010 meeting, Irwin won support from his board colleagues to remove the topic limitations on public commentary.

Board Rules & Regulations: Working Session Amendment

Yousef Rabhi began the discussion by saying he opposed putting new limits on public commentary. He didn’t believe it was the right move, but he realized that many other commissioners supported it. As a compromise, he proposed an amendment to keep both public commentary slots in place at the working sessions. [Rabhi has chaired those sessions for the past year, and was re-elected chair of the working sessions at the Jan. 4 meeting.] His amendment also kept the five minutes alloted per speaker for public commentary at the working sessions.

Outcome on amendment: Rabhi’s amendment to retain two opportunities for five-minute public commentary at working sessions was approved unanimously.

Board Rules & Regulations: Abstaining Amendment

Dan Smith proposed an amendment to the rule relating to board resolutions. The current section states:

Where a resolution proposes to amend a prior board resolution, County policy or County ordinance, the resolution shall conform to the style set forth below:
1. The section of the existing resolution to be changed shall be presented in its entirety, including any language proposed to be deleted by the resolution/motion such deletion shall be indicated by a horizontal line running through the deleted language.
2. New language shall be indicated by being presented in bold and italic.

Smith said he wanted to give commissioners the option of abstaining from a vote. His amendment would add the following statement: “Members may abstain from voting on any resolution expressing support (or opposition), but otherwise taking no action.”

Smith did not elaborate on his reasons for proposing the change, but the issue was relevant at the board’s last meeting in December 2011. A resolution brought forward then by Yousef Rabhi urged state lawmakers to reject HB 4770HB 4771 and “any legislation that codifies discrimination.” The state legislation, which was later signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, removed the ability to extend benefits to same-sex partners. During deliberations on that resolution, commissioners Dan Smith and Rob Turner had objected to bringing forward resolutions that were not focused on Washtenaw County issues – both commissioners ultimately voted against it.

At the Jan. 4 meeting, Wes Prater questioned Dan Smith’s amendment, stating that state law requires commissioners to vote on resolutions unless there’s a conflict of interest. He asked the county’s corporation counsel, Curtis Hedger, to weigh in on the issue.

Hedger’s initial thought was that since the amendment pertained to resolutions that were advisory in nature, it would be permissible to allow commissioners to abstain. Hedger took a few minutes to try to find the applicable law but was unable to locate it, so he proposed tabling the amendment to a future meeting. He noted that the board’s rules and regulations can be voted on at any time throughout the year.

Barbara Bergman said she didn’t care what Hedger found – she’d be against the amendment, even if it were allowed by law. Commissioners are elected to govern, she said. Even on non-action item, their votes are important because they indicate the board’s direction and philosophy. To not have an opinion is very sad, she said. It might protect a commissioner in future elections if the vote is controversial, she added, but commissioners have a responsibility to vote on any resolution before the board. She said she’d be ashamed to be so concerned about getting elected. “If you’re here, vote,” she concluded.

Leah Gunn proposed tabling the amendment until the board’s second meeting in February, which falls on Feb. 15.

Outcome on tabling Dan Smith’s amendment: Commissioners voted unanimously to table the amendment until the second meeting in February.

Responding to a follow-up email query from The Chronicle, Dan Smith stated that he believes he’s made his point, and he doesn’t intend to pursue the amendment. He wrote: “My contention would be that a resolution saying ‘we support (or oppose) …’ does not constitute ‘act’ as contemplated by the law. Furthermore, the list of lawful actions does not specifically include ‘voting on resolutions of support’ or something similar. To underscore his argument, Smith pointed to three sections of relevant state law in Act 156 of 1851, which pertains to the state’s county boards of commissioners:

Act 156 of 1851 – Section 46.3: ”The county board of commissioners of a county shall act by the votes of a majority of the members present. However, the final passage or adoption of a measure or resolution or the allowance of a claim against the county shall be determined by a majority of the members elected and serving. …”

Act 156 of 1851 – Section 46.3a: “The names and votes of members shall be recorded on an action taken by the board of county commissioners …”

Act 156 of 1851 – Section 46.11: “A county board of commissioners, at a lawfully held meeting, may do 1 or more of the following: …”

Smith also wrote that if the issue is simply a matter of following Robert’s Rules of Order, then the board’s own rules and regulations supersede that, and could be changed.

Board Rules & Regulations: Public Commentary

Ronnie Peterson spoke at length about the proposal to reduce opportunities for citizen participation. He opposed eliminating the number of slots, and also opposed cutting the time limit. He said he got into government because of citizen participation, “from the audience to the election box.” Not everyone gets off work at the same time, he noted, so it might not be possible for citizens to make it to the start of the meeting for the first public commentary.

As for cutting the time limit from five minutes to three minutes, Peterson said he understood why city councils usually limited their public commentary to three minutes per speaker – there are usually far more people speaking at city council meetings than at board of commissioners meetings, he contended. Typically, there are only one or two people who show up to public commentary, he said, so he didn’t see the importance of limiting it. Also, people speak at different speeds, Peterson said – for people who speak more slowly, they might need the full five minutes.

Peterson also objected to eliminating the time for commissioners to respond, saying he’d feel uncomfortable if he couldn’t say a word. Overall, he said he saw no rationale for these changes to public commentary.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. agreed with Peterson. The community already feels a disconnect between the public and elected officials, he said. Noting that he’s the kind of person who likes to ask others what they think, Sizemore said he didn’t want to prevent the public from asking him. The public should have the right to tell commissioners what they think.

Rob Turner clarified that the proposed changes wouldn’t eliminate all public commentary or commissioner response. They would just be eliminating one of the two current opportunities at each meeting.

Yousef Rabhi thanked commissioners for supporting his amendment earlier in the meeting, and said that keeping working sessions the way they currently are made him more comfortable with the other changes.

Outcome on main resolution regarding the board’s rules & regulations: There was only one resolution and one vote taken on the overall changes to the board’s rules & regulations. It passed on a 10-1 vote, with dissent from Rolland Sizemore Jr. However, Felicia Brabec and Ronnie Peterson wanted the record to reflect that they were voting against eliminating public commentary. Peterson also voted against reducing the time allotment to three minutes. The changes mean that there will be only one opportunity for public commentary at the start of each board meeting and at each ways & means committee meeting, followed by a time for commissioner response. Public speakers will have three minutes each for their remarks during public commentary and at public hearings.

Board Rules & Regulations: Public Commentary

Speaking during the last opportunity for public commentary, Thomas Partridge said there’s a “cabal” on the board that’s imposed restrictions on citizen participation, even for the disabled and elderly. He called it unethical, and said it indicated corruption. The decision calls into question the integrity of each commissioner, he said. There should be a legal challenge to the change, he said. Even though many people on the board run as progressives, Partridge said, they behave and speak like conservatives in the Tea Party. [Eight of the 11 commissioners are Democrats.]

Board Meeting Calendar: Administrative Briefings

Dan Smith noted that since the last board meeting on Dec. 7, when commissioners had approved their 2012 meeting calendar, he had circulated via email some proposals to modify the times for administrative briefings.

Administrative briefings are informal meetings that have been held the week prior to the board’s regular meetings, to review the upcoming agenda. They are public meetings and are noticed in accordance with the Michigan Open Meetings Act. They are held in a small conference room and unlike the regular board meetings, ways & means committee meetings and working sessions, they are not televised.

By way of background, in March 2011 the board voted to eliminate the briefings entirely. That decision was made in the wake of criticisms by commissioner Ronnie Peterson, who did not attend the briefings because of his objections to the format. He called the briefings “backroom” meetings where deliberations occur that he believed were too far out of the public eye. After that March 2011 vote, a weekly agenda-setting meeting took the place of briefings, attended by senior staff and just three commissioners: Smith, as board chair; Rolland Sizemore Jr., chair of the ways & means committee; and Yousef Rabhi, chair of the working sessions. Because the meetings did not involve a quorum of commissioners, they were not be required to be open to the public.

Later in the year, the briefings were re-instituted. The 2012 calendar approved by the board at its Dec. 7, 2011 meeting included administrative briefings scheduled at 4 p.m. on the Tuesday during the week prior to the board’s regular Wednesday meetings. The time – prior to the end of a typical work day – has been difficult for some commissioners, including Dan Smith, who has often been unable to attend.

At the board’s Jan. 4 meeting, Dan Smith proposed amending the calendar schedule so that administrative briefings would be held at 6 p.m. prior to the 6:30 p.m. working sessions, which are typically held on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Because board meetings are held on the first and third Wednesdays of each month, this change would mean a nearly two-week span between the tentative agenda being reviewed at the briefing and the next board meeting.

Conan Smith suggested that the briefings could simply be listed as the first agenda item at the working sessions, rather than holding separate meetings.

Barbara Bergman noted that commissioners have an informal goal of ending the working sessions by 8:30 p.m. She recommended that they consider pushing the time back to 9 p.m., to accommodate the briefings. Leah Gunn proposed a possible solution: Starting the working sessions at 6 p.m. and adding the administrative briefing as the first agenda item.

Dan Smith agreed to Gunn’s proposal as a friendly amendment.

Outcome: The amendment changing the start time of working sessions to 6 p.m. and adding the administrative briefing as the first agenda item passed unanimously.

Communications & Commentary

There were several opportunities for communications during the Jan. 4 meeting, and two slots for public commentary.

Thomas Partridge spoke during both opportunities for public commentary. In addition to the commentary reported above, Partridge also advocated for an expansion of services for the homeless in Washtenaw County, specifically citing the conditions of Camp Take Notice. He called for more affordable housing and access to public transportation. Partridge also demanded more transparency in local government, asking that meetings of all public boards, commissions and committees be held in locations where the meetings can be recorded for broadcast on the Community Television Network.

Orian Zakai, Alexandra Hoffman, Conan Smith

From left: Orian Zakai and Alexandra Hoffman talk with county commissioner Conan Smith after the Jan. 4 board of commissioners meeting. Zakai and Hoffman are organizing a daytime warming and community center for people who are homeless.

Orian Zakai told commissioners that she was a University of Michigan graduate student who was speaking on behalf of organizers of an all-day winter community center. The idea emerged from conversations in the Occupy Ann Arbor camp at Liberty Plaza. It’s become clear that there’s an urgent need for a warm, safe place to gather, she said, where people could feel empowered. But local officials have been discouraging of the effort. Organizers have been told that the Delonis Center – a homeless shelter on West Huron Street – serves that purpose, but Zakai noted that the shelter isn’t open during the day.

People who are supposedly served by the Delonis Center see it as disconnected from their needs, Zakai said. One man characterized it to her as like living in an institution, either a prison or a hospital, and said that he was neither a criminal or sick. It’s the opposite of an empowering place, she said. Delonis Center officials had said they want people to be put into housing and to find jobs. But there are no jobs or housing, Zakai said, so people just spend their days walking around outside. Instead, they could be building community by spending time at a community center, where they could watch movies, do art or music, read books, or help each other look for jobs.

Organizers are having difficulty finding space for the center, she said. The biggest obstacles are prejudice and fear of change, she concluded, and she hoped commissioners could help find space for the center and support its formation.

During the time available for commissioners to respond to public commentary, Conan Smith thanked Zakai for speaking out on this issue. He said the county has a long-standing commitment to working on homeless issues. The board could direct Zakai and her fellow organizers to county staff and other resources that might help break through the bureaucracy, Smith said. The issue of empowerment that Zakai raised is an important one, he said. It’s an issue that he hadn’t previously given much thought to, and he thanked her for raising it.

Communications & Commentary: Road Commission

Rob Turner, who serves as a liaison to the Washtenaw County road commission, reported that earlier in the week he had attended a WCRC meeting – the first one since Roy Townsend had been selected as the new executive director late last year. Townsend previously served as WCRC’s director of engineering. Turner reported that for the year’s budget through November, the road commission was about 1.4% ahead of budgeted revenues for the year. Because it’s been a mild winter, they’ve had to spend less on salt and snow removal, he said, and that bodes well for their budget.

Later in the meeting, Rolland Sizemore Jr. expressed frustration that the board hadn’t been briefed on changes at the state level, as he said he had previously requested. State legislation affecting the road commission is one example of changes that will be coming fast, he said.

Yousef Rabhi, who chairs the board’s working sessions, responded by saying he could schedule a session on that topic and invite the county’s lobbyist, Kirk Profit, to brief the commissioners. Barbara Bergman pointed out that commissioners regularly receive email updates from Profit regarding state-level issues. Sizemore replied that these are issues the board needs to discuss – simply reading emails isn’t enough.

Communications & Commentary: Courthouse Renovation

Rob Turner reported that he’s been regularly attending meetings regarding the renovation of the Washtenaw County trial court in downtown Ann Arbor, at the corner of Huron and Main. The trial court is an entity that includes the 22nd Circuit Court, juvenile court, probate court and Friend of the Court program. Phase two is now completed and the project is back on schedule, after giving the contractors a little prodding, he said. Turner said the hallways still look like vintage 1960s, but the customer service areas and offices are bright and up-to-date.

Jason Fee with the county facilities unit would like to give commissioners an update on the project, Turner said, perhaps at a working session in February. Rolland Sizemore Jr. suggested that the topic be scheduled at the same working session when Greg Dill gives the board a report on county-owned facilities and space use. Dill is the county’s director of infrastructure management.

In response to a query from Barbara Bergman, Turner elaborated on the different phases of the project. The board had been briefed on the renovations nearly a year ago – at its Jan. 19, 2011 board meeting– by Donald Shelton, chief judge of the Washtenew County trial court. And at their July 6, 2011 meeting, commissioners had authorized $1 million for the second phase of the project, which entailed renovation of the first floor of the courthouse.

Sizemore noted that Turner had failed to answer the most important question: “Is Judge Shelton happy?” Turner indicated that he was.

Communications & Commentary: Farmland Preservation

Yousef Rabhi, who serves on the county’s agricultural lands preservation advisory committee (ALPAC), reported that the group met in late December and looked at the scoring of farm applications for the county’s natural areas preservation program. The applications were from owners of farms who are seeking to sell development rights to the county. The county has about $1 million available for the purchase of development rights, Rabhi said, and the committee narrowed the set of applications to 10. “We’re hoping to keep some farmers in business,” he said. ALPAC makes recommendations to the county park & recreation commission, which will make the final decision on these applications.

A 10-year millage renewal to support the county’s natural areas preservation program (NAPP) was approved by voters in November 2010. Earlier that year, commissioners had approved changes to the ballot language that allowed a portion of NAPP funds to be used for the purchase of development rights (PDR) for farmland. For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: “Washtenaw Natural Areas Tweaked for Ballot.”

Communications & Commentary: Retirements & Staff Reorganization

Wes Prater reported that he had asked for the number of county employees who had retired at the end of 2011 – there were 117 retirements, he said. The board needs to take a close look at these positions, he said, to see which of them could be eliminated. The county needs some structural changes to its organization, Prater said. He suggested instituting a hiring freeze until the board could hold a working session on the issue. He noted that a new purchasing agent has recently been hired, and his concern is that the administration is actively trying to fill these vacant positions without reviewing whether the jobs are necessary.

Leah Gunn argued that it’s not the board’s purview to look at the organization job-by-job. The administration knows that structural changes are needed, Gunn said, and so the administration should bring a plan to the board. Commissioners don’t know which positions should be eliminated or kept.  The budget in 2014 and 2015 will be difficult, but Gunn said she relies on the staff’s expertise. The department heads did heroic work in cutting their budgets for 2012 and 2013, she noted. The staff is working hard, and commissioners should respect that, she concluded.

Deputy county administrator Kelly Belknap responded. [County administrator Verna McDaniel had traveled to New Orleans to attend the Jan. 2 Sugar Bowl, and was not present at the Jan. 4 meeting.] Belknap told commissioners that before any job is posted, the position goes through a review to determine if it should be filled or not. In some departments, six or seven people retired, she said. Some of those jobs need to be filled in order to continue providing services to residents, she said.

Prater took issue with Gunn’s opinion that the board doesn’t have purview over the positions. The board does have authority to eliminate or create jobs, he said. The administration makes recommendations, but it’s the board that decides. Prater noted that four years ago, the county employed about 1,360 people, and about the same number are employed today, he said. And every year, the county hires hundreds of temporary workers too, he said.

Prater said he’s concerned that the county needs to use its fund balance to balance the budget, and “once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.” The county needs to make structural changes, he said, or it will be in big trouble.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. circled back to the issue of the newly hired purchasing agent, saying that person should have come to the board to be introduced. Belknap indicated that she would make sure the new employee attended an upcoming meeting.

Present: Barbara Bergman, Felicia Brabec, Leah Gunn, Ronnie Peterson, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith, Dan Smith, Rob Turner.

Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. at the county administration building, 220 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor. 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 commentary is held at the beginning of each meeting, and no advance sign-up is required.

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