The day after the Oakland County Reapportionment Commission had it’s organizational meeting — and sent out a news release with comments from all members, Republicans and Democrats, talking about cooperation and fairness — a stable of Republican state representatives from Oakland County introduced legislation that would give control over redistricting county commissioner seats to the GOP-dominated county Board of Commissioners.
House Bill (HB) 4380, sponsored by state Rep. Eileen Kowall (R-Highland, White Lake) and co-sponsored by every other member of Oakland County’s Republican delegation to the state House of Representatives, would make it so that counties that have an elected county executive and a population of more than 1 million — only Oakland and Wayne counties — would have apportionment commissions comprised entirely of their county board, not the five designated members provided for under current state law. The current statutory members of county reapportionment panels are the county prosecutor, county treasurer, county clerk, and the two heads of the two county parties that received the most votes in the last election for secretary of state.
This year, the county’s reapportionment commission is made up of three Democrats — Prosecutor Jessica Cooper, Treasurer Andy Meisner, and Democratic Party Chairman Frank Houston — and two Republicans, Clerk/Register of Deeds Bill Bullard, Jr. and Republican Party Chairman Jim Thienel.
That essentially means that Democrats have final say on the boundaries for new county commission districts, potentially giving them an upper-hand in county commissioner elections for the next 10 years, until the 2020 U.S. Census is conducted.
Houston said that while he feels redistricting reform is a good idea and he wants it to be a less political effort, he doesn’t believe that push should be made while redistricting is actually taking place.
“I think (the fact) that the (state) Legislature is pursuing this sort of strategy or contemplating it calls into question their ability to draw their own districts,” Houston said, adding that he wasn’t casting political aspersions on the lawmakers who introduced the legislation.
Kowall said that, because of the population and governmental makeup of Wayne and Oakland counties, those jurisdictions “more reflect the structure in state government.”
“To me, when you get that 1 million-plus population, I just thought it would be more equitable,” she said.
Asked about the timing of the legislation, Kowall said that she guessed “nobody’s thought about it before.”
“You don’t think about it until the census and so forth,” she said, adding that Democrats would still have input into the process and that the legal system would still maintain their oversight authority.
State Rep. Gail Haines (R-Waterford, West Bloomfield), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said the bill would immediately grant authority to the Oakland County Board of Commissioners to reapportion the districts rather than waiting until the next redistricting process.
“I think it provides for more accurate representation of the needs of the overall population because Oakland County is divided up by commissioner districts, and what this would do is to provide for representation from all over the county,” Haines said. “The five-person panel people could all live within a certain radius of each other, but if you move to a 25-member board, that’s more representative.”
Asked why people shouldn’t view the legislation as a political power grab, Haines said lawmakers change laws “all the time to make things better or to make laws more representative.”
Kowall also dismissed the potential perception that the bill is motivated by politics.
Both Bullard and Meisner declined to comment on the legislation.
Republicans control the state House by a 63-47 margin, the state Senate with a 26-12 majority, and the governor’s mansion.
The bill has been referred to the House Redistricting and Elections Committee.
State Sen. Mike Kowall (R-Commerce, Highland, Milford, Walled Lake, Wixom, Wolverine Lake, White Lake, Orchard Lake, West Bloomfield) also introduced a companion bill, Senate Bill 224, in the state’s upper chamber.