Bill Bullard, Jr. of Highland Township is an attorney who has been involved in politics for over 40 years, from the local level as the Highland Township supervisor all the way up to the state House (1982-1996) and state Senate (1996-2002). Bullard now serves as the Oakland County clerk/register of deeds, a position he was appointed to in December after serving on the Oakland County Board of Commissioners for eight years, with six years as chairman of the county board. One of the architects behind Proposal A, Bullard is now working to help the clerk’s office better serve Oakland County residents through expanded online access and services, as well as mobile offices visiting different attractions across the county. Bullard recently spoke with the Spinal Column Newsweekly about his past, present and future in public service and politics.
SCN: Your career in politics spans four decades, including serving in the state House and Senate, but the position of Oakland County clerk is a whole different ball game. How did you prepare for your responsibilities as county clerk and what are the biggest adjustments you’ve had to make?
BB: I’m the first attorney who has served as county clerk, first of all. As an attorney, I was familiar with the Legal Records Division of the Clerk’s Office. I’ve also been a public official for 30 years and in that capacity, I was very familiar with the Elections Division. I’ve prepared deeds, mortgages, and other legal documents, so that made me familiar with the register of deeds part of the operation. So pretty much, for somebody who was not a clerk or register of deeds prior, I had a lot of experience with the office.
In addition, the county clerk is the clerk of the Board of Commissioners. I served on the Board of Commissioners for eight years, the last six years as chairman of the board, so that’s a very comfortable role for me to handle, being clerk of the Board of Commissioners.
SCN: Earlier in the spring you said that you were assisting with an investigation after possibly forged assignment of mortgage documents were filed with your office and the Michigan Register of Deeds office during the U.S. foreclosure crisis. Please give us some insight into that investigation and how it is progressing.
BB: I have determined that in the first instance we found, because we learned about this through “60 Minutes,” that the name Linda Green was being signed to assignments of mortgage fraudulently by college students.
We found about five of those filed in our Register of Deeds Office over the last three years. We turned that information over to the attorney general of the state, the prosecuting attorney of Oakland County and the sheriff of Oakland County.
Just recently, we determined that another person that admitted to signing fraudulent documents is a guy in Florida named Brian Bly. We found over a hundred Brian Bly signatures in recorded documents in our county. We turned those over to the attorney general, the prosecutor and sheriff.
We’re not an investigative agency. We don’t have the resources or the legal authority to do that, but when we find what we think are alleged fraudulent documents, we turn them over to the investigative and prosecuting agencies, which is what we’ve done.
SCN: There’s been an ongoing debate in Michigan about liberalizing absentee ballot use, with some even calling for a “no-reason” absentee voting option for all voters. What are your feelings on the wisdom of such reforms, or even eliminating the current criteria for absentee ballot use?
BB: I support no-reason absentee voting. I think all you need to do is use a present statute and just say if someone wants to vote absentee, they can vote absentee.
(Secretary of State) Ruth Johnson has a proposal that may break this deadlock. Maybe there’s a way it can be done that is palatable to the Legislature and that is to have no-reason absentee voting, but make the person hand-deliver the absentee ballot, and I support Secretary Johnson’s proposal.
SCN: Technology is rapidly evolving to the point where people can now file various documents with your office or access filed documents online. What ideas do you have on how technology can be further involved in the Clerk’s Office?
BB: Well, the e-filing system, which includes all civil cases and now divorces with no minor children, we now have a project to extend that to DM cases, divorce with minor children.
Eventually, all the case codes that you file cases under will be under e-filing, but we’re moving rapidly in that area. In the Clerk’s Office, that’s the main technological initiative.
In the Register of Deeds Office, within the next couple months, we’re going to be able to announce that when you register a deed or other document with the office, instead of sending it back to you six or seven weeks after the fact, we will be able to scan that document and hand it back to you right away. That will be a huge change in our operation. It will be a savings to us in postage of, we think, over $25,000 a year.
SCN: There’s been an outcry from Democrats about new state legislative and congressional districts drawn up by the Republican majority in Lansing, while Oakland Republicans are upset about the redistricting of county commissioner districts via a panel dominated by Democrats. Does either side really have a case or is this just the latest example of minority party members lamenting district changes that will favor the other party for the next 10 years? Should anyone be surprised that one side or the other would carve up new districts to give their own party an advantage?
BB: I can’t comment on the legislative or congressional (district changes) because I don’t know anymore than what I read in the papers. However, as far county commissioner (district changes), I was on the panel that made that decision. The map that was adopted on a partisan 3-2 vote, the chair of the Oakland Republican Party voted no and I voted no and there is a court challenge to the county map and it is in the Court of Appeals and we should know in the next few months whether the Court of Appeals will uphold that map or throw it out.
I think that’s the history of redistricting ever since the early 60s when it was required and the majority party draws the maps. The minority protests and the minority party goes to court. That’s just the system that we have. Until we get a new system, that’s the system that we’re stuck with.
SCN: You were appointed as county clerk in December. Do you plan on running for election in 2012 to retain your current office or do you have other plans? What do you hope to accomplish in your political career?
BB: I will be running for clerk/register of deeds in November 2012. I think the job of clerk will be my last political office, however long that lasts.
We have such great people working here, and we have a great office. It’s traditionally been a great office over the years, over a number of different clerks.
We’re planning for a new Elections Division headquarters and we’re going to dedicate the conference room in the new office to the Allen family. Lynn Allen was clerk for 30 years and his dad and mom were clerk for another 28 years, so the Allen family had this office for 58 years. So we’re going to commemorate them by naming the conference room after them (on Sept. 22), which is basically putting a plaque on the wall.
What we really need to do is continue what we’re doing. Using technology we can be more efficient every year.
The other main thing we’re trying to do among other things I’ve mentioned is, we have our online, not in line campaign. We feel it’s to the advantage of the consumers of this office if they’ll do more transactions online. Every transaction that you can do by standing in line in our Pontiac headquarters, you can do online and we’re trying to publicize that more and more. We are seeing an increase in online activity. Our mantra is real simple — every transaction online results in one less person in line. So for the people that want to stand in line or may not be computer-savvy, it’s an advantage to them, too.
The other thing that we’ve been doing is Ruth Johnson started mobile offices where our office went out to various communities and offered services in local communities. We just had one in Highland Township just a week ago. But, we’re expanding the mobile offices by going to farmer’s markets this summer. We’ve been to the Farmington Hills farmer’s market, the Birmingham farmer’s market, we went to Milford Memories and we have a number of other farmer’s markets and events like that. We’re trying to reach out to and let people know of our services, and every person that can do an online transaction can save gas money driving to Pontiac.
SCN: What has been your proudest moment during your many years in local, county and state government, and why?
BB: I would say, in the Legislature, where I was for 20 years, I sponsored over 170 bills that became law. (There were) a lot of tax cuts that I authored in the (Gov. John) Engler era. Probably the non-tax bill that’s probably had the most impact is my bill made seat belts a primary offense. As a result of my bill, we now have the highest seat belt compliance rate in the country — over 90 percent — and thousands of lives have been saved and millions of dollars have been saved. So legislatively, those would be my biggest accomplishments
At the county, when I was chairman of the board for six out of the last eight years, we had a balanced budget every single year. Oakland County maintained it’s AAA bond rating and we truly have a unique government at Oakland County. It’s probably the best government in the whole country.
Going back to one other legislative achievement, in 1994 Speaker Paul Hillegonds came to me because I was chairman of the (House) Tax Policy Committee and said “Can you talk to the Democrats and get a bipartisan group together?” This is after several ballot proposals to reform property taxes had taken place and failed, and he said talk to the Democrats, get a group together and there’s got to be a solution to this because every February when assessment notices went out in meetings all across the state, people were protesting because assessments were going up and their taxes were going up.
So I went to Lynn Jondahl, who is the former chair of the House Tax Policy Committee, and we got a group together that ended up to be what they called the “Group of 14.” We had seven Republicans and seven Democrats and that turned out to be the ballot proposal that was called “Proposal A” that was adopted May 1, 1994, and until the hard economic times we’ve experience recently, that worked well to cut property taxes where people could afford them, yet adequately financed the schools.
The last couple years, we’ve had problems with financing our schools and my belief is we’d have a hard time no matter what the system is because there’s not enough money to go around for the various programs in state government.