Political power for the next decade in Oakland County is at stake as the county’s Reapportionment Commission — which is now controlled by Democrats — does its work to redraw district boundaries for the Board of Commissioners based on 2010 U.S. Census data. But legislation introduced by Oakland County Republicans in the state House of Representatives and the state Senate would effectively strip the Democrats of their control of the Reapportionment Commission in what appears to be a partisan move that’s the political equivalent of taking the football away because you didn’t get to play quarterback at a pick-up game at recess. Although we won’t hold our breath, we genuinely hope this legislative maneuver is sacked and that the Democratic-controlled Reapportionment Commission can do its work as planned.
House Bill (HB) 4380, sponsored by state Rep. Eileen Kowall (R-Highland, White Lake) and co-sponsored by every House Republican representing communities in Oakland County, 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 — translation: the Oakland County Republican Party and the Oakland County Democratic Party.
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.
State Sen. Mike Kowall (R-Commerce, Highland, Milford, Walled Lake, Wixom, Wolverine Lake, White Lake, Orchard Lake, West Bloomfield) also introduced the same legislation, Senate Bill 224, in the state’s upper chamber.
The reapportionment commission is required to, as best as possible, redraw county commissioner district lines so that each district is contiguous, compact and represents roughly the same amount of Oakland County citizens.
State law stipulates that the county board can have between 25 and 35 seats, as is the case with all counties with populations over 1 million.
Both Rep. Kowall and state Rep. Gail Haines (R-Waterford, West Bloomfield) said the issue at hand is fairer representation of county residents since, theoretically, the five members of the panel as currently provided for under state law could live in close proximity to one another, thereby not giving adequate representation to some of the county’s residents. The county board, however, is made up of members from all over the county. The Board of Commissioners, therefore, would provide better, more comprehensive representation for all of the county’s residents, they said.
That’s not bad logic. But we don’t buy the assertion that the bills aren’t at least partially motivated by political control. We instead see the effort as more of a sleight of hand.
First of all, all five members of the current reapportionment commission already represent the county as a whole. While there is the possibility that all five members could live in the same geographic area of the county, that doesn’t negate the fact that all of them are elected or appointed to represent the county in its entirety in some manner, whether it’s in the government or politically as heads of the county Republican and Democratic parties.
In addition, the benchmark population of 1 million strikes us as arbitrary from a representational standpoint, particularly when large counties — Macomb, for example, which has a population creeping towards 1 million and has an elected county executive — wouldn’t be affected.
Kent County has a population of about 600,000. Why shouldn’t its Board of Commissioners control the process? Ditto for Genesee County with its population over 425,000. Washtenaw County? Roughly 350,000. Do representative reapportionment panels not matter in those counties? The bills are too narrowly carved out for Oakland County, the only one of the two counties that currently would be affected where political control over the redistricting process would do a 180-degree turn should the legislation garner enough support.
Which leads us to politics.
The bills could have easily come out after the redistricting process was completed — after all, we didn’t hear a peep about this until the county’s reapportionment panel first met. That would have changed our thinking from the get-go. But when the process began, it seems GOP lawmakers remembered that they wouldn’t have control over redistricting in Oakland County, so they had to think of a way to wrench it back.
It seems to us a transparent political power play that would never have seen the light of day if, for example, former Oakland County Treasurer Pat Dohany won re-election in 2008, or if Cooper didn’t beat Republican David Law that year — meaning that Republicans would have held control of the county’s redistricting panel.
But they didn’t. And Republicans need to live with the consequences of the 2008 walloping they took, whatever they may be, and give this legislation the treatment that it deserves in the state Legislature — the silent one, effectively letting these bills die in committee.