Timing is key in politics, and the Oakland County Democratic Party took that adage to heart when it released on Tuesday, March 20 over 200 pages of e-mails and correspondence from key county and state Republican officials and lobbyists.
Democrats say those missives are proof that a controversial new law on Oakland County redistricting is merely a political ploy to maintain GOP control of the county Board of Commissioners, rather than an attempt to streamline government and reduce costs, as Republicans have claimed all along.
The release of the documents, which the county Democratic Party obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed earlier this year, came the day before the Michigan Supreme Court was scheduled to hear oral arguments on Public Act (PA) 280 of 2011, which effectively passes the county board redistricting torch from a five-member panel now controlled by Democrats to the full Board of Commissioners, which has a healthy 15-9 Republican majority.
The high court ruled late Monday, March 26 that the law is constitutional. A full story on the court’s ruling appears on page 33 of today’s edition of the Spinal Column Newsweekly.
By law, redistricting occurs every 10 years following the release of U.S. Census figures to redraw districts for certain political offices at the local, state and federal level. Michigan law states that those responsible for redrawing a county board of commissioners’ district lines serve on a five-member body consisting of the county clerk, county treasurer, county prosecutor, and the chairs of the county Republican and Democratic parties.
For decades, Republicans held the majority on the Oakland County Reapportionment Commission, effectively giving them authority to draw the county board districts to their liking. But with the 2008 election wins by Treasurer Andy Meisner and Prosecutor Jessica Cooper wrenching control of those positions from the GOP, county Democrats had the majority on the apportionment panel and the luxury the GOP held for years.
Also serving on that panel were county Clerk/Register of Deeds Bill Bullard, Jr., county Republican Party Chairman Jim Thienel, and county Democratic Party Chairman Frank Houston, who chaired the reapportionment commission.
The district map approved in a 3-2 party-line vote by Democrats was upheld in the Michigan Court of Appeals on Nov. 23, 2011. Less than a week later, state Rep. Bradford Jacobsen (R-Lake Orion) introduced House Bill (HB) 5187, the enacting legislation for PA 280, which took redistricting power away from the reapportionment panel and also called for a reduction in the size of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners from 25 to no more than 21 members.
Republicans argued that the legislation was needed because it would reduce the size and cost of county government, saving the county about $250,000 annually in commissioners’ salary and benefit costs.
Democrats called it blatant partisanship and an attempt to maintain political control of the Board of Commissioners. After it was signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder in December, county Democrats filed a lawsuit in Ingham County Circuit Court challenging the law’s constitutionality.
Ingham County Circuit Court Judge William Collette’s Feb. 15 ruling deemed PA 280 unconstitutional, and the state Court of Appeals on March 7 split 2-1 in upholding part of Collette’s assertion that the law flies in the face of the state Constitution.
And it appears that some Republicans had concerns about the law’s constitutionality, as well, as several of the released e-mails raise concerns about whether PA 280 could be construed as a local act — the crux of Democrats’ arguments about the unconstitutionality of the statute.
When Deputy County Executive Jerry Poisson wrote on Oct. 20, 2011 to Mike Compagnoni, the legislative director for Jacobsen, he expressed concern that an earlier version of the bill would rope in Wayne County on the changes that Oakland County wanted the state Legislature to make, according to the e-mails released by Democrats.
Poisson suggested making the law applicable only to counties that have adopted an optional unified form of county government, have a population over 1 million, and an elected county executive — criteria which currently only Oakland County meets.
“The reason (I want that change in the draft legislation) is that Wayne County has an elected county executive and a population over 1,000,000 and I don’t think we want them in the mix,” Poisson wrote. “It may open the issue of ‘local act,’ but like all legislation using population it seems like the law should be okay because it applies to any county that meets the requirements either now or in the future.”
“I’m not sure LSB (Legislative Services Bureau) can constitutionally write language that will solely effect [sic] Oakland County without getting us into too much trouble,” Compagnoni wrote in response.
By early December, Bret Marr, a lobbyist with Muchmore Harrington Smalley & Associates, seems to have indicated a political battle was about to begin.
“Revised committee notice w/the Jacobsen bill posted. Let’s get ready to rumble!!,” Marr states in an e-mail.
Twenty-seven hours after that e-mail was sent, Marr sent the following to Poisson:
“Had dinner w/some Dems tonight. Plan is to raise issues on the floor but they know it’s forgone conclusion. They plan to take it to courts as soon as its [sic] signed.”
The e-mails also reveal that Republican leadership and legislative staff had concerns.
“Time to get our game faces on & get this done,” state Rep. Eileen Kowall (R-White Lake, Highland) wrote in a Sept. 5, 2011 e-mail. “As (state Rep.) Marty (Knollenberg) has pointed out, Speaker (Jase) Bolger (R-Marshall) still has a level of discomfort with this and how it would unfold.”
Kowall, who appears to have shared the job of whipping votes with Knollenberg during the process, continued in the Sept. 5, 2011 e-mail:
“As you (Knollenberg) suggested, we need to make a point that Oakland County doesn’t ask for much of anything. We just leave tons of OC revenue on the state table. Meanwhile, we have supported our fellow caucus members for bills/appropriations/tax credits, etc. for their districts. I have a few recent examples of this that we can use with specific members, if need be. Members also need to understand that OC is the economic engine of this state and vital to MI’s recovery. We have plenty of examples of what the Dems have tried to do & would do to [sic] if they gain power (on the county Board of Commissioners). They would ruin OC & destroy what decades of exemplary leadership took to build.”
Asked how that comment isn’t political in nature — rather than about the size and cost of county government, as Republicans claim — Kowall said “that (it) is probably part of an ongoing discussion that we had through the legislative process informing this legislation” based on what she has seen Democrats on the county board propose during her tenure on the 25-member body.
“I guess it would also help to have an [sic] legitimate explanation as to why we waited until now, after redistricting plans have been submitted, to take these bills up,” her Sept. 5, 2011 e-mail to Knollenberg, Gingell, Bullard, and Poisson continued. “I’m thinking that we claim we were having trouble agreeing on how many seats the BOC would ultimately have.”
Kowall said over the phone on Wednesday, March 21, that particular reference was to legislation she introduced a year ago that would have given redistricting power to the county board, but contained no provisions for winnowing down the board’s size.
“(That remark was) because the legislation was already out there and we kind of put the cart before the horse,” she said. “We were still discussing how many seats (the county board) would go down (under her HB 4380).”
Poisson issued a statement yesterday that reads, in part:
“On the heels of two top Oakland County Democratic Party officials (former chairman Michael McGuinness and former political operative Jason Bauer) being convicted of numerous felonies involving various frauds during the last general election, it’s incredulous that Frank Houston, who replaced one of the convicted felons as chair of the Oakland County Democrats, wants Oakland County residents to continue to entrust unelected and unaccountable party bosses with the duty of drawing election districts.
“It was and is appropriate for responsible elected Oakland County officials to step forward on behalf of voters to reform the process so decisions and votes will be cast by elected officials who must deliberate in public as required by the Open Meetings Act, and whose records are open to the public under the Freedom of Information Act, just as the State of Michigan does. Mr. Houston and Oakland County Democrats should cheer the transparency and sunshine Act 280 brings. What are they trying to hide?”
With a Supreme Court decision on the new redistricting law looming, Houston said “more questions need to be asked,” and called what he sees as the GOP’s purely partisan gamesmanship “outrageous.”
He also said Kowall and Knollenberg “blackmailed” Republican colleagues in the state House of Representatives for votes and that “Bullard thinks it’s completely appropriate, despite being the county clerk” that decisions over who is elected to public office “should be made in 5 or 10 minutes by a couple Republicans without any comment.”
Houston was referring to the following passage of an e-mail from Bullard obtained through Democrats’ FOIA request:
“Committees in both houses could be discharged and the bills could pass each body in 5-10 minutes if the Republican caucuses want this to happen. (Debate could be cut off after one Republican explanation of the bills.)”
It’s unclear, Houston said, what the next steps will be for county Democrats. He added that the 200-plus pages of correspondence he released constituted the entirety of what he received in response to the FOIA request.
Bill Mullan, Oakland County Media and Communications Officer, said county officials in Patterson’s office “utilize e-mail for legislative purposes all the time, not just for this.”
He said nothing improper was done by Poisson, Patterson, or anyone else serving in the county administration.