Column: Michigan’s got a government overload

Dennis Lennox

For proof that Michigan’s archaic and dysfunctional structure of government no longer works just look at elections earlier this month. The Legislature had to intervene after city clerks in Sault Ste. Marie, Tecumseh, Bessmer and Lake Angelus screwed up.

Yes, the vast majority of county, township, village and city clerks do an admirable job, but there are enough examples of malfeasance and nonfeasance to question the sanctity of elections.

After all, the republic depends on the legitimacy and integrity of the process used to elect occupants of the greatest and lowest offices — from president of the United States down to township constable.

Whether it was the widespread disparities in the 2016 presidential election within the city of Detroit or the more recent examples, enough is enough.

Then there are the thousands of candidate campaign committees and political action committees that operate with little scrutiny because local clerks are often lax in enforcing campaign finance laws at the local government level.

The situation would be vastly different if state government had reformed local government decades ago.

The 83 counties only exist because way back when state government couldn’t collect and store records or administer justice from the distant capital of Lansing. It needed local functionaries — county clerks, treasurers, prosecuting attorneys, sheriffs, judges — to execute the state’s authority and powers by performing largely mundane duties and responsibilities.

Beyond counties are the thousands of townships, some of which have populations under 150 inhabitants. It is hard enough finding competent souls to run for the Legislature let alone for township supervisor, clerk, supervisor or trustee in a township with few voters.

Townships are politically more difficult, not least because there are taxpayer-funded lobbyists who actively work against the interests of the taxpayers who fund them. This is not a sexy issue. Nobody cares about this sort of thing. And yes, there is also a certain romanticism attached to township government, thanks to the likes of de Tocqueville and Jefferson.

Nevertheless, the time has come for Lansing to reform the archaic and dysfunctional structure of government to reflect the realities of the 21st century.

That isn’t to say counties or townships can’t or shouldn’t continue to exist. They can, but Michigan doesn’t need 83 counties or 1,240 townships, the latter of which has over 6,200 officeholders.

As for cities and villages, the difference between these municipalities is confusing even for a politico. Making it worse is the fact that inhabitants of cities also pay taxes to county governments that provide little to no frontline services within city limits, other than a jail and courts.

I’m reminded of a discussion I had with the village president in Vanderbilt back in 2010.

The village formed 150 years ago when Michigan’s economy was timber. This was the age of lumber barons and lumberjacks. Today, nobody can justify its existence except for saying they have always had a village. There are hundreds of villages and townships with the same history as Vanderbilt. Today, they serve no purpose other than as lines on the map.

Dennis Lennox is a political commentator and public affairs consultant.