Traverse City News and Events

GT County Commissioners Explore Changes to Road Commission, Drain Commission Office

By Beth Milligan | Feb. 14, 2024

Grand Traverse County commissioners are exploring possible changes to two key county functions: the Road Commission and the Drain Commissioner’s office. An ad hoc committee of commissioners is exploring options for the Road Commission ranging from maintaining the status quo of an appointed board to switching to an elected board to bringing the Road Commission directly under the control of county commissioners as a county department. Commissioners are also expected to meet with Drain Commissioner Andy Smits on March 6 to discuss the salary and responsibilities for that position, with changes possibly to come prior to the April 23 primary filing deadline.

Commissioners Brad Jewett, Scott Sieffert, and TJ Andrews are on the ad hoc committee analyzing the structure of the Road Commission. The group had their first meeting last week and will likely have at least two more, Andrews anticipates. She notes that when the Road Commission struggled with collecting roadkill last year, that prompted commissioners to vote last June to have legal counsel explore options for addressing the situation – including the option of dissolving the Road Commission.

Other issues have also contributed to commissioners wanting to take a closer look at the Road Commission, Andrews says. “I think from all of our perspectives, there’s been a series of challenges at the Road Commission before and after the roadkill situation to where there was enough of an interest in further exploring options,” she says. Those issues include the unresolved closure of Bluff Road, a delayed Road Commission financial audit that then delayed a county audit, concerns about the Road Commission operating without a chief financial officer and having to pay for an interim CFO, and the abrupt resignation of former Road Commission Managing Director Brad Kluczynski in October. Andrews cites as another example the Road Commission’s recent decision to halt pursuing a Hartman-Hammond bypass due to skyrocketing cost estimates after spending millions pursuing the bridge.

“That (project) appears to be something that is clearly out of alignment with what our community wants,” she says.

Still, Andrews and other commissioners note the ad hoc committee’s review is not intended to be a reflection on Road Commission staff, including new Managing Director Dan Watkins. Both Sieffert and Jewett said at the first committee meeting that “the purpose of the ad hoc committee was not to be a negative reflection on the services provided by the Road Commission and staff but to follow-up on a discussion that was started several months ago for transparency of the Road Commission operations,” according to meeting minutes. Andrews says she recently appeared at a Road Commission meeting to reiterate that position to the board. “This (review process) is a reflection on issues with the system and structure, as opposed to any individuals,” she tells The Ticker.

Numerous options are on the table, according to a memo from Matt Nordfjord, the county’s legal counsel. Michigan law allows for road commissioners to either be appointed or elected. They’re appointed in Grand Traverse County right now, but changing that system is an option. However, Andrews says there didn’t appear to be “much of an appetite” for that change at the first ad hoc committee meeting given the complexity of the Road Commission’s tasks. “At least when it’s appointed, there are some credentials and qualifications” that can be considered during the appointment process, Andrews notes.

Andrews says she’s also not sure if there’s an appetite for making the Road Commission board smaller – such as dropping it down to three instead of five members – or dissolving it entirely and bringing the Road Commission under county commission control. But those are possible outcomes, as are several tweaks to the status quo scenario that could modify the existing structure to change the level of interface between the Road Commission and county commission or adjust the size or representative makeup of the board.

Committee members requested that staff collect more data – including looking at other communities that have considered dissolving their road commissions and either chosen to go that route or not, as well as their reasons why – for consideration at the next ad hoc meeting. Once the committee has consensus around a proposed path forward, members will bring back a recommendation to the entire commission for consideration.

Commissioners are also set to meet with County Drain Commissioner Andy Smits at the board’s March 6 meeting to discuss the responsibilities and salary of that position. A drain commissioner is an elected official in Michigan who is responsible for creating and maintaining county drains and providing stormwater guidance and support to the county. The position used to be funded as a full-time job – it had a salary of $61,165 in 2012 – but had its salary and hours slashed down over the last decade by past boards. In late 2022, commissioners agreed to a proposal from Smits to raise the salary to $45,000 to allow him to catch up on a multitude of projects he said had been neglected for years.

That increase is supposed to sunset in April, with the salary reverting to $18,000. However, commissioners could decide to keep the higher salary in place or else change it to some other level, depending on the needs of the position going forward. Commissioners voted to request Smits to appear at their March 6 meeting to discuss his work over the past year-plus, as well as his thoughts on the structure and salary for the office going forward. Smits says he’s not yet able to comment on the board’s discussion, as he just returned from vacation and didn’t see the commission meeting. “I was not invited to the board of commissioners meeting, had told some board members I was on vacation, and I have no knowledge of what transpired while I was on vacation,” he says.

Commissioner Ashlea Walter said there is a “sense of urgency” to address the drain commissioner position since the role is up for election this year. Commissioners recently passed a policy stating they would endeavor to set salaries for elected officials no later than February in an election year, in order to allow candidates who may be running – and must file by late April (April 23 this year) – adequate time to understand the responsibilities and salary of a role before deciding to run. Commissioners legally still have until November to set a salary, but multiple commissioners said they wanted to adhere as closely as possible to the timing outlined in their new policy and address the position sooner rather than later.

“It doesn’t feel fair for this to be out there in limbo...if somebody’s seriously consider running for the drain commissioner,” Walter said. “This is a serious job and a serious office, with very big consequences for our county.”

Comment

Potential $11-$16 Million LaFranier Expansion On County's Agenda

Read More >>

Ransomware Group Claims Credit for TCAPS Attack

Read More >>

Airport Updates: Cherry Fest Air Show Agreement Approved, Tech Park Hearing Scheduled

Read More >>

Traffic Stop Leads to Search of Drug House

Read More >>

One Year of Recreation Cannabis in Traverse City

Read More >>

Tank Space Opens on Eighth, More Retail/Restaurant News

Read More >>

From Neighborhood Bike Club To $730,000 Impact: The History Of Mud Sweat & Beers

Read More >>

TART Trail, Union Contracts, Morgan Farms Neighborhood Association on City Agenda

Read More >>

City Project Updates: FishPass, M-22/M-72 Reconstruction

Read More >>

Your 2024 Spring Race Calendar

Read More >>

Place Your Bets: Expert to Talk Online Sports Gambling Boom

Read More >>

New Designation Means Big Money For Career-Tech Center's Manufacturing Programs

Read More >>

City Considers Taking Over Parking From DDA

Read More >>

What’s Next for the Pines?

Read More >>