The Michigan House of Representatives — dominated by a solid Republican majority — has passed a bill that would let Oakland County’s Board of Commissioners, also controlled by Republicans, essentially toss out previously approved new county commissioner districts and start the mandatory redistricting process from scratch. Supporters, including all but one of west Oakland’s state representatives, cite the cost savings that would result from enacting the bill, which also calls for reducing the number of county commissioners in Oakland. Yet the proposal should be viewed with a fair measure of suspicion. Since it was Democrats who held a majority on the county redistricting panel that completed its statutory task earlier this year, the bill that recently cleared the House smacks of a blatant power grab.
House Bill (HB) 5187, sponsored by former Oakland County commissioner and current state Rep. Bradford Jacobsen (R-Oxford), would bring Oakland County back to the drawing board when it comes to the redistricting process for new Board of Commissioners districts, as well as reduce the county’s governing body from 25 commissioners to no more than 21.
Specifically, HB 5187 states that in a county with a population of 1 million or more that has adopted an optional unified form of county government with an elected executive under Public Act 139 of 1973, the apportionment commission shall be the county Board of Commissioners.
In a 58-50 vote, state Reps. Hugh Crawford (R-Walled Lake, Wixom), Gail Haines (R-Waterford, West Bloomfield), Eileen Kowall (R-White Lake, Highland), Chuck Moss (R-Orchard Lake) and Bill Rogers (R-Milford) supported the legislation. State Rep. Lisa Brown (D-West Bloomfield, Commerce, Wolverine Lake) voted against it.
HB 5187 now heads to the state Senate for consideration.
Supporters of the bills state it would bring the county in line with the state legislative redistricting process and save the county about $250,000 a year in commissioner salaries and benefits. They also hold that the Board of Commissioners would more fairly represent the county’s voters in carrying out the required redistricting chore.
Under current state law, redistricting for the Oakland County Board of Commissioners is the responsibility of a five-member county Reapportionment Commission, which under the law is comprised of the county treasurer, county clerk/register of deeds, county prosecutor, and the chairs of the county Republican and Democratic parties.
This year, that process was controlled by Democrats Frank Houston, the county Democratic Party chairman; county Prosecutor Jessica Cooper; and county Treasurer Andy Meisner. Oakland County Clerk/Register of Deeds Bill Bullard, Jr., a Republican, and county Republican Party Chairman Jim Thienel also served on the panel, which approved new Board of Commissioners districts in a party-line 3-2 vote in May.
Back in March, Kowall introduced HB 4380, stating that in a county with a population of 1 million and an elected county executive, the county apportionment commission shall be the county Board of Commissioners. That bill is largely similar to HB 5187, but lacks the provision whittling the county Board of Commissioners down from 25 members to 21.
HB 5187 is also similar to Kowall’s HB 4380 in that it appears to be a brazen effort by Republicans to rewrite the redistricting law so that they may control the process and carve up districts that benefit the GOP for the next 10 years.
The redistricting chore can be characterized by the familiar phrase, “to the winner goes the spoils.” Every 10 years following the release of new U.S. Census statistics, the county Reapportionment Commission draws up new districts. And every 10 years the party holding the majority on that commission comes up with new districts that benefit it, and the minority party cries foul. It unfolds that way like clockwork. It’s not uncommon for the minority party to file a legal challenge against the majority’s new district map, as has been the case this year.
We expect such gamesmanship in the redistricting process. But trying to change the rules of the game when they no longer benefit your party takes the game to a whole new, overtly selfish and disturbing level.
You can bet that if Democrats held a majority on the county Board of Commissioners, neither HB 5187 nor HB 4380 would have been introduced. Similarly, neither bill would have been introduced if the GOP held a majority on the county’s Reapportionment Commission.
It’s telling that there was no talk of savings for the county when Kowall’s HB 4380 was introduced in March. Now, HB 5187 includes a provision to reduce the number of elected county commissioners and conveniently provide for the “cost savings” support argument, which provides cover for what we believe to be the real catalyst for the bill — sore loser Republicans wanting to undo the new commissioner districts so they can have their own way with district lines.
If saving the county money is the real intent, let the county board cut commissioner pay and benefits. But don’t hold your breath for that.