Sizemore Elected to Lead County Commission

Commissioners also reduce time for public comment
Rolland Sizemore, right, newly elected chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, confers with Curt Hedger, the countys corporate counsel, at Wednesday nights board meeting.

Rolland Sizemore, right, newly elected chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, confers with Curt Hedger, the county's corporate counsel, at Wednesday night's board meeting.

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.

Swearing In

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.

The swearing-in ceremony: Commissioners Jessica Ping, Mark Ouimet, Wesley Prater, Kristin Judge and Conan Smith.

The swearing-in ceremony: Commissioners Jessica Ping, Mark Ouimet, Wesley Prater, Kristin Judge and Conan Smith.

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.)

Rule Changes

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.

Public Comment

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.


  1. By Vivienne Armentrout
    January 8, 2009 at 7:12 am | permalink

    I believe that Republican Raymond Schultz was the Chair of the Working Session in 1994-96.

    The new chair, Rolland Sizemore Jr. joined Jeff Irwin in voting against the Rules and Regulations. Though he did not speak to it, it was my impression that his vote reflected agreement with Irwin’s objections to the rule change.

  2. By Karen Sidney
    January 8, 2009 at 10:47 am | permalink

    I am appalled that citizen input has been curtailed. Why should citizens have to get permission before being allowed to speak on a non agenda item?

  3. By Lou Glorie
    January 8, 2009 at 11:02 am | permalink

    Effeciency is not a democratic value, nor a principle from which elected representatives should act. I had not seen reports of mobs of citizens gumming up the works at BoC meetings–though I wish this were the case. Elected representatives interested in doing the job of “representing” might consider enacting rules and regs changes that mandate citizen involvement–how about “no budget shall be passed unless there be 100 citizens in attendance”? If representation is the job of representatives, citizen participation is the vehicle for ascertaining the needs, wants, will of citizens. Otherwise pols are acting on …what?…sense of smell?

  4. By mr dairy
    January 8, 2009 at 1:06 pm | permalink

    It is outrageous, but not unexpected. Scheduling “open” meetings at times and places where it’s difficult for ordinary people to be, limiting notification of agenda as well as speaking time, top down decrees from on high, etc. I think Mr Smith is feeling his political oats, using that political capital he got on the last election.

  5. By Mary Morgan
    January 8, 2009 at 4:36 pm | permalink

    Vivienne, you’re right about Rolland Sizemore Jr. also casting a no vote on the rules & regulations change – he didn’t make any comments, and I somehow didn’t hear him vote no. Thanks for pointing that out – I’ve made the correction in the text.

  6. By Vivienne Armentrout
    January 8, 2009 at 8:35 pm | permalink

    Thanks – Mr. Sizemore’s form was impeccable since the Chair is not supposed to enter into discussion until the Board has had its say. However, he was obliged to note that Mr. Irwin’s motion died for lack of a second. Since there was no motion on the floor, there was no discussion, so the Chair could not comment. His only option was to vote against the main motion, which he did.

    Yes – our version of Kabuki theater. But that’s why we love Robert’s Rules.

  7. January 9, 2009 at 1:31 am | permalink

    As we go through the budget process for the 2010 and 2011 expenditures, the county is facing a deficit of approximately $18M — some 20 percent of our general fund. Dealing with the loss of one in five dollars will mean that competing values and investment priorities are going to come head-to-head with each other. Human services will suffer. Environmental protections will be reduced. The economic development programs that have kept Washtenaw’s unemployment rate the lowest in the state will be jeopardized. Resolving these issues in a community-oriented fashion demands a different way of engaging people’s talents, creative thinking and heartfelt support.

    The amazing hardship we are all going to face is part of the reason I posited the change to our public process at the Ways and Means Committee. Our meetings are the decision points in what needs to be a focused and deliberative public engagement strategy. While I understand the concerns that are being voiced about the reduction in speaking time from five to three minutes and the restriction to issues germane to the agenda, I’ve watched (and occasionally chaired) these meetings carefully for the past couple of years and you can trust that the reforms are not intended, nor will they be managed in such a way as to, infringe on the right of citizens to bring issues before the committee.

    Frankly, the public comment period at our meetings is the least effective and least substantive means for influencing county government. It is an archaic tool, little more than an excuse not to engage in a more robust public participation process. I will not go so far as to say it is a complete waste of the public’s and the staff’s time, but it is close. It is our main means for citizen engagement and as such violates the most fundamental aspects of effective public participation:

    * It comes too late in the process for meaningful change to be realized.
    * It is not structured to create a dialogue among the stakeholders.
    * It focuses attention on a single sector of the community and a single aspect of the issue at hand.
    * It is not targeted at a specific decision, policy, project or program.

    In all, our public comment time is frustrating for everyone involved. It is my intent to change that by driving a more meaningful and useful public engagement process, of which public comment at meetings is an important, but small, component.

    On their face, reducing the time for comment and restricting the subject matter to agenda items could certainly be seen as an attempt to squelch public debate. It would be unfair, however, to take those actions out of the context of the more serious need for effective over traditional citizen engagement. To mitigate any negative impact of these reforms, I’m taking two direct actions:

    * Citizens will be invited to improve the effectiveness of their testimony by providing written comments in advance of the meeting that will be incorporated into the public record; and
    * I am inviting citizens and organizational representatives to discuss their concerns directly with me in advance of the meetings so the board can evaluate the need for a more extensive comment period or public hearing.

    With regards to keeping comments germane to the agenda, it is important to note that no change was made to the board of commissioners meeting. The only change was to the Ways & Means committee process. Any issue can be brought before the board and the time limit there is still five minutes. Similarly, the guidelines for the Working Session remain unchanged. Furthermore, the ninth item on every Ways & Means committee agenda, per the rules we adopted Wednesday night, is “Items for Current/Future Discussion”; this maximizes the leeway for topics that can be brought before the committee. What is never germane are the personal attacks on individuals that have increasingly become part of public comment at our meetings. I fully intend to gavel those down and feel completely justified in that by our community’s deeply-rooted support for civil discourse.

    As chair of Ways and Means, it is my intent to focus the discussion from the citizens and the board members with these reforms on the issues at hand during the budget process. I will, however, carefully evaluate the impact of the meeting process changes we instituted; if they have had a detrimental effect on citizen engagement, I’ll be the first to offer a retraction.

    That said, our public engagement process in the development of this budget has to change — fundamentally change. Citizen participation should not be designed to provoke criticisms of government proposals or actions, as our current process does. Rather, we should strive for a deliberative process that allows community members to explore the implications of the various policy trade-offs we are faced with, as partners rather than subjects. I intend to design a budget process that is transparent and accessible, that treats the concerns and perspectives of our community partners with respect.

    We will begin with intentional outreach to the community to raise awareness about the issues we are facing and the process we intend to undertake. There will be a period of information gathering and public education, which will very likely include nontraditional governmental strategies like web forums, workshops and listening sessions. We will have a formalized process for collecting an analyzing community and stakeholder group (including our unions, the business and nonprofit sectors, and users of county services) recommendations. The recommendations the board makes will have ample time for public review and feedback before they are adopted as policy.

    I accept that the reforms to public participation at the Ways and Means committee might cause some initial distress — change does that. I urge everyone, however, to fairly consider how (I would argue if) our public comment period effectively contributes to the outcome of better policy and service delivery options rooted in a more substantive understanding of community-wide values and priorities. And to consider if a five-minute comment is the best way to achieve that outcome, or just the way we have become long accustomed to.

    While the rule about timing and content has changed for one of our committees, what is ultimately intended is more meaningful and more plentiful citizen engagement in the county’s governing process. I trust you will give us the chance to explore a different way of doing business that is more satisfying for the board, the staff and the electorate.

  8. By Karen Sidney
    January 12, 2009 at 3:55 pm | permalink

    If citizens are expected to improve the effectiveness of their presentation, what about the county improving the quality of the financial information given to the public? There are many pages of budget and other financial information but I expect most people would find it very confusing.

    Some of the things I’d like to know include whether the county’s actual costs increased more or less than inflation during the past 5 years and why. How do our per capita costs for services compare to peer counties? How much does the county spend on consultants and what benefits did we get for the spending? How has the ratio of square footage of county buildings to total county employees changed over time? How much future tax revenue has been given away in brownfield credits and how many and what kind of jobs have actually been created as a result of these credits?

    I spent quite a bit of time analyzing county finances 5-10 years ago. My conclusion was that the county was engaged in a high risk strategy that involved using up reserves and taking on debt to build new buildings. As long as the county benefited from increased tax revenues from the sprawl, they could pay the bill but those days are gone. But the addiction to buildings is hard to break and the county is continuing with building projects despite the deficits.

    The high risk strategies continue. The BOC recently approved borrowing $160 million to put in the VEBA (retiree health care plan). The only advantage to doing this is if the 160 million can can be invested in the market and earn a higher return than the interest rate on the debt. If it works, everyone is happy but if it doesn’t, the county is in an even deeper hole. Useful budget information would be showing what would happen if things did not work out as planned.

  9. By Vivienne Armentrout
    January 13, 2009 at 4:27 pm | permalink

    I just read Mr. Smith’s commentary and have the following responses:

    1. The public are the employers of the elected board members and it is not required for them to pass an “effectiveness” criterion.

    2. I find this statement incomprehensible: “Citizen participation should not be designed to provoke criticisms of government proposals or actions.”

    3. Personal attacks on commissioners should simply be ruled out of line by the chair. Perhaps a rule could be instituted that personal attacks of any kind are not acceptable. I’ll leave it to the attorneys to figure out that legality.

    4. The purpose of public comment periods is to allow the public to bring any subject which they consider of importance before the board. During my time as a commissioner, I found this was often a vehicle for me to learn about problems or issues that I was not aware of, and I found it useful.

    5. The public is not interested in the technicality that the Ways & Means meeting is just a committee meeting. As far as they are concerned, that is the beginning of the Board of Commissioners meeting. People who wish to address the board often want to come in to the meeting, say their 5 minutes worth, and leave. It is inconsiderate to make these citizens wait through a two-hour meeting in order to speak to their concerns at the Board meeting, which does not occur on schedule so it is not possible to come in at, say, 8:00 to speak at that meeting.

    I hope that the current Board will reconsider this action.