Action on Road Commission Postponed

Washtenaw County commissioners have postponed a resolution regarding the county road commission until their May 7, 2014 meeting. It’s the first board meeting that follows an April 17 working session, when issues related to the road commission will be discussed. The vote to postpone took place at the county board’s April 2, 2014 meeting.

The resolution, if passed, would leave the county road commission as an independent entity. The resolution also states that the county board does not support making the road commission’s board an elected body. [.pdf of board resolution]

The resolution is in line with recommendations of a board subcommittee that was appointed in October of 2013 to look at the future of the road commission. At its final meeting on March 1, 2014, the subcommittee voted to recommend that the road commission remain an independent operation, and not be absorbed into the county government.

That subcommittee vote came over dissent from Conan Smith of Ann Arbor (D-District 9), who argued that consolidating the road commission into the county would allow for more flexibility and accountability in oversight. Currently, the road commission is overseen by a board with three members appointed by the county board of commissioners to six-year terms. Smith thought that asking voters to approve a countywide road millage – when the revenues aren’t allocated by an elected body – would be a tough sell. It would be especially tough to sell to voters in the city of Ann Arbor, who already pay a millage for street maintenance within the city.

But others on the subcommittee were in line with the strong support from township officials for keeping the road commission independent. Most township boards in the county have passed resolutions supporting the current structure, citing their strong relationships with the road commission staff and board.

The subcommittee did not make any recommendations on whether to expand the road commission from three to five members. The three county commissioners who served on the subcommittee – Conan Smith, Dan Smith (R-District 2) and Alicia Ping (R-District 3) – had agreed that the question of expansion was primarily a political one, and should be taken up by the county board. Subcommittee members indicated that they’d be willing to discuss it further, if directed to do so by the county board.

Regarding the question of whether road commissioners should be elected positions, the subcommittee unanimously passed a resolution recommending not to pursue that option. The sense was that elections would be dominated by urban voters who are heavily Democratic, but who would be electing commissioners to oversee road projects in rural communities.

The three current road commissioners are Doug Fuller, Barbara Fuller, and Bill McFarlane, who was appointed by the county board at its March 19, 2014 meeting. At that time, board chair Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) voiced support for expanding the road commission board to five members. That will also be part of the discussion at the April 17 working session.

These issues come in the context of a state law that opened the door to possible consolidation of the road commission into the county. In 2012, the Michigan legislature enacted amendments to Section 46.11 of Public Act 156 of 1851, which allows for county boards of commissioners to transfer the powers of the road commission to the county board. There’s a sunset to that section of the law, however. Unless extended by the legislature, it will expire at the end of 2014.

This brief was filed from the boardroom of the county administration building, 220 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor. A more detailed report will follow: [link]