Elections bureau questions Calley part-time petition

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – The Michigan Bureau of Elections this week questioned the constitutional validity of Lt. Gov. Brian Calley’s part-time Legislature petition and shared concerns with its legal counsel provided by Attorney General Bill Schuette’s Office, The Detroit News has learned.

A late Tuesday email sent by Bureau of Elections Director Chris Thomas to members on the bipartisan Board of State Canvassers appears to contradict claims by Calley’s committee attorney that Schuette’s office or staff raised the questions, an assertion that set off a flurry of speculation over potential infighting by prospective Republican gubernatorial candidates.

“We have taken second look at part-time Legislature and believe there may be some alter and abrogate issues,” Thomas wrote. “We discussed with AG office.”

At issue is whether the petition properly lists each section of the state constitution it would change or repeal, as required. If not, the committee could risk legal challenges in the future or be forced to modify the petition, which may invalidate signatures it began collecting last week.

The petition was set to go before the Board of State Canvassers on Wednesday for an optional stamp of approval, but the meeting was abruptly canceled Tuesday afternoon, prompting conflicting explanations for the delay.

Committee attorney John Pirich on Tuesday denied Clean Michigan had withdrawn its petition or had any plans to modify it, saying the committee is “very confident” in the petition but was surprised by last-minute questions it believed to have come from the attorney general’s office or staff.

Thomas told canvassers that Pirich’s colleague at the Honigman law firm, attorney Andrea Hansen, asked for the petition to be pulled from the agenda ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, which was subsequently canceled.

Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams said Bureau of Elections staff contacted committee counsel to ask if they had researched the issue in question. Pirich’s co-worker then requested cancellation of the meeting in a voicemail, said Woodhams, adding he personally listened to the message.

Pirich did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. The ballot committee deferred questions to the law firm.

The Clean Michigan Committee has requested a new hearing before the Board of State Canvassers, Woodhams said. A date has not yet been set.

“The state constitution requires that all sections amended or abrogated by an amendment be listed on the petition,” Woodhams explained. “While the petition lists the sections being altered, it does not list any other sections being abrogated. The staff routinely reviews petitions on that issue.”

Elections staff discussed the issue with legal counsel that the attorney general’s office provides to all state departments, Woodhams said, but the bureau “did not make any determination and neither did AG staff.”

The board often relies on input and recommendations from the Bureau of Elections when deciding whether to pre-approve the form of petitions. It’s not clear if unresolved questions would have affected Wednesday’s vote.

Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely reiterated Wednesday that “at no time did the Department of Attorney General impede the approval process, seek to stop approval, or request withdrawal of the petition.”

“The Attorney General has supported a part-time Legislature for years,” she said. “The statement by the Honigman law firm attorney is wrong. The issue is, and remains, between the ballot committee and the Secretary of State.”

In a follow-up call with The Detroit News, Bitely confirmed the Bureau of Elections shared its questions with its assistant attorneys general but said she does not believe they have responded at this point.

“It’s really no different than any other department we work with,” Bitely said. “We are their attorneys. So if they have a question, they come to us, but (the board) can act without talking to us. They have all the options in the world.”

Board pre-approval of petition forms is an optional step many committees take to avoid legal challenges down the line. The Clean MI Committee pulled its petition from an earlier May 18 board meeting after a canvasser discovered a minor error. The committee resubmitted but began collecting signatures last week prior to the scheduled board hearing.

Schuette and Calley both appear poised to seek the 2018 GOP gubernatorial nomination. Each has said they favor making Michigan’s Legislature a part-time institution.

Calley launched a statewide petition drive last week for a potential ballot proposal that would roughly halve legislator pay and generally limit the Legislature to meeting 90 days a year, served consecutively rather than spread out over 12 months.

Multiple canvassers contacted by The Detroit News on Wednesday said they were initially surprised by the cancellation of Wednesday’s meeting and most did not learn any details until late Tuesday.

“I have never in my nine years on the board known the attorney general to be the one asking questions about the form of a petition,” said Norm Shinkle, one of two Republicans on the bipartisan board. “It’s always the Elections Bureau. I think this is John Yob trying to stir up some controversy.”

Yob is a political strategist helping organize Calley’s part-time Legislature committee. He distributed an initial statement from Pirich on Tuesday.