Snyder taps own office in flurry of last-minute appointments

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Governor Rick Snyder and Lt. Governor Brian Calley.

Lansing — Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is on an appointment spree as he prepares to leave office, filling vacant posts ranging from high-profile university boards to obscure commissions that promote carrot consumption and regulate elevator inspections.

The Ann Arbor Republican has turned heads by naming members of his own administration to mostly unpaid positions. Even Snyder’s director of gubernatorial appointments Kristin Beltzer, who is in charge of the process, earned an appointment and will serve on the Governor’s Talent Investment Board until April of 2020.

Snyder has already announced 98 appointments in December after filling dozens of spots in November, when he named Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, senior adviser Rich Baird and former chief of staff Dennis Muchmore to university boards. He is still considering who he’ll choose to fill an opening on the Michigan State University Board of Trustees.

The appointments touch little-noticed commissions from unarmed combat — which regulates professional box and mixed martial arts —  to electronic recording — which manages the practices and technology of county registers of deeds. 

The governor insists the volume of appointments is not unusual, attributing it to the expiration of terms out of his control. But experts say that by appointing members of his own office to various posts, Snyder is extending his administration's influence beyond his term in office. 

Other outgoing governors have done much the same, but the recent flurry is "atypical" for Snyder, said TJ Bucholz, a Democratic strategist with Vanguard Public Affairs, who noted a growing list of Snyder staffers, loyalists and donors who have been "rewarded" with an appointment. 

"It's not uncommon, but he hasn't really done it a lot until now," Bucholz said. "I think he's making up for lost time."

Snyder appointed Calley and Muchmore to the Oakland University Board of Trustees while tapping Baird to serve at Eastern Michigan University. More recently, he tapped Treasurer Nick Khouri to serve on the State Tax Commission and Budget Director John Walsh for the Detroit Financial Review Commission.

For his part, Snyder said he's appointed his own aides and staffers to open posts because they're "great, well-qualified people that want to continue to serve our state.

"And I think that’s a good thing," the governor told reporters last week in a year-end round table discussion. "They applied and went through the process and were vetted. I’m happy to have them service since they’re probably transitioning their public service.”

Snyder on Friday named Military and Veteran’s Affairs Agency Director James Robert Redford to the Michigan Court of Appeals, a prestigious and paid post for the former Kent County Circuit Court judge, who also previously worked as Snyder's chief legal counsel. On Monday, he tapped Director of Communications Ari Adler to the Judicial Tenure Commission.

Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri

But most of the governor's recent appointments have been for unpaid posts. He recently named his Director of Scheduling Elizabeth Weir to serve on the Michigan Board of Respiratory Care, his Director of Strategic Policy Angela Ayers to the Michigan Community Service Commission and Senior Special Projects Director Andy Doctoroff to the Detroit-Wayne County Port Authority.

Snyder picked his External Affairs Director Tricia Kinley to replace Cabinet Director Michael Zimmer on the Mackinac Bridge Authority. Zimmer had been tapped to serve on the new Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority but resigned three days before an inaugural meeting due to a "possible legal conflict."

Over his eight years in office, Snyder has earned a reputation for naming qualified candidates to boards and commissions rather than making a slew of "political" appointments, said Tom Shields, a GOP consultant and president of the Lansing-based Marketing Resource Group.

For high-profile posts like university boards, the appointments mean the Snyder administration can continue to influence university decisions well after the next governor has taken office, Shields said.

Snyder’s recent appointment spree could continue right up until noon on Jan. 1, when Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer is sworn in, Shields said, noting that some current board appointments expire on Dec. 31.

Rather than try to handcuff Whitmer, the Snyder administration says it is trying to reduce her workload by ensuring she does not confront a large number of vacancies upon taking office. Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm left office with hundreds of appointments unfilled or expired, and the Snyder administration "had to work its way out of a serious deficit in terms of making sure the people of Michigan were appropriately represented," said spokesman Ari Adler. 

“Gov. Snyder does not want to leave so much work undone when he hands the office over to Governor-Elect Whitmer. The new governor will immediately have numerous boards and commissions to start working on for appointments and reappointments due to the continuous cycle of such positions expiring based on the constitutional or statutory rules governing each board and commission.”

Then-state Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, a Rochester Republican who now serves in Congress, led a successful push to block 14 Granholm university board appointments during her last year in office, arguing they would give her influence at the schools throughout much of the following decade.

Some appointments are subject to the advice and consent of the Senate, but GOP majorities have not moved to block any Snyder picks this year. 

The appointments stretch the gamut from well-known posts to positions the general public may not know exist. Snyder recently picked retired Rowe Professional Services CEO John Matonich, who donated $100 to Whitmer this year, to represent "snowmobile owners" on the Michigan Trails Advisory Council. 

Outgoing governors typically try to fill every board and commission seat before leaving office, Bucholz said, calling it a "hallmark" of most administrations. 

"I don't blame Gov. Snyder for trying to take care of the people who have been in his office and been successful for him," Bucholz said. "... It allows the governor to reward loyalty. There's nothing illegal about it, and there's nothing wrong with it. Republicans and Democrats have done it."

The appointments provide a “landing spot” for administration officials “who want to continue their service,” allowing them to keep some role in state government even as they return to the private sector or retire, Shields said.

Republican Gov. John Engler appointed Shields to the new Film Advisory Commission in 2002, along with the governor's chief of staff Dan Pero and adviser Richard McLellan. Sixteen years later, Snyder this month appointed the Marketing Resource Group executive to the Advisory Council on Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing.

Shields, who wears hearing aids, filled out an application online, reworked his resume for the first time in decades and told the administration five different commission or board posts he’d be willing to serve on.

“I always felt that board appointments should go to the volunteers before they appoint people who work around the Capitol for a living,” Shields said. “That’s why I didn’t fill out an application until the end of the term when I know they are looking for people to fill all the slots.”

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