By KAREN HOPPER USHER
Capital News Service
LANSING — A lot of new faces will be in county boardrooms come January.
More than 130 county commissioner seats statewide will be filled by people new to their jobs — a 21 percent turnover rate, according to the Michigan Association of Counties.
And that’s just because of the August primary.
In the November general election, 145 more seats remain in contention. If all of them get new commissioners, that would be a turnover rate of 44 percent, said John Amrhein, a public policy educator at Michigan State University Extension. That’s something he’s never seen in 20 years of public policy work.
But it’s a tough year to call.
“We have such unusual things going on at the top of the ticket,” Amrhein said.
If the turnover is that great, a lot of new officials will have to learn to govern quickly.
Commissioner Conor Egan, R-Drummond Island, who was a new commissioner in Chippewa County in 2014, remembers his first day when he had to start making appointments.
“I’m going to pick somebody’s name and it’s going to have an effect on other people,” Egan recalled. “It was heavy.”
Such a high percentage of people have said they would never vote for either Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump that it’s hard to know how the election will shake out farther down the ballot in races such as county commissioner seats, Amrhein said.
Retirements and citizen revolution can cause high turnover, he said. It could also be fluke.
Six counties will have more new commissioners than old after the primaries alone, he said. Those are Emmet, Oscoda, Shiawassee, St. Joseph, Luce, and Lake counties.
Kathy Pangle, R-Mendon, an unopposed candidate for the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners, says that board is turning over for good reason.
“Too many people were in it for their own self-interest,” she said.
Pangle says she ran in part due to a $2.8 million sports complex approved by the current board. Voters should have been able to vote on that, she said.
Every county commissioner seat in the state goes up for election every two years. An entire county board could be filled with rookies.
High turnover isn’t good or bad, Amrhein said.
Sometimes it can be good to get a fresh perspective, he said.
It takes a few months for new commissioners to learn their jobs, said Kelly Church, deputy administrator of Chippewa County, where three of five seats turned over in 2014 and just one new commissioner is expected to be elected in 2016.
“The flow of how county government works is greatly affected,” she said. “They think they know what they’re getting into, but they really don’t.”
Amrhein said county governments are broad and have numerous departments with differing authority structures. New boards can slow how long it takes to bring an issue to a board, get the issue resolved and then move on.
Charles MacInnis, R-Harbor Springs, the sole returning member of Emmet County’s seven-member board, said he’s already launched an education campaign for new commissioners.
When he was first elected, he recalls introducing himself to county department workers only to be told, “You’re the first commissioner to ever come in here to ask us what we do.”
That won’t happen to his new co-commissioners, if he can help it.
“I said, ‘We need a training program,’” MacInnis said. Now, new commissioners meetwith two departments every Thursday.
Amrhein leads a MSU Extension team that puts together workshops for new commissioners. About 75-80 percent of them eventually take the workshops.
Sometimes newcommissioners have big ideas but don’t fully understand what county government does, Amrhein said.
“I look at it as a lack of information, not ability,” he said.
Some veteran commissioners take the workshops year after year, he said.“It’s kind of one of those things where folks never really stop learning.”
Amrhein said it’s not uncommon for new commissioners to have attended a series of commissioner meetings to prepare for their campaigns.
Julie Games, R-Fayette Township, in Hillsdale County took that approach. She’s uncontested in her district and is learning about the role of county government.
She said she was surprised that commissioners are responsible for so much, and she is concerned about the county’s bottom line.
“If I have concerns, it’s about the all-encompassing scope of what we have to manage. I don’t even know, really, all of the so-called benefits of doing all of this,” Games said.
In Wexford County, at least a third of the board will turn over in the general election. Mike Bengelink, R-Cherry Grove, who twice previously served on the board, beat an incumbent during the primary.
Working with new board members isn’t hard as long as they realize they don’t have all the answers, he said.
By KAREN HOPPER USHER