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Ken Winter

Ken Winter

Emmet County Throws the Rascals Out and Elects New County Commissioners—It Could Happen Statewide

December 9, 2016

If the November 8 election in Emmet County is any indicator, top Michigan Democrats and Republicans may find themselves as surprised as they were by Donald Trump’s election: The traditional political parties have lost touch with the grassroots electorate.

With the exception of one commissioner, for the first time in memory voters elected six new faces to the county board.  The startling results came after voters living in the popular Petoskey and Harbor Springs resort areas told elected officials that they had had enough with the lack of communication, transparency, and the spending of millions of county tax dollars without their approval.

Most residents had to learn all of this from the last standing county commissioner—Charles MacInnis—who had been crying out for four years.  From him, they learned that his fellow county commissioners have spent taxpayer funds on a variety of projects, including wresting away the area’s Emergency Management Service (EMS) from a non-profit organization.  This required costly personnel training, the purchase of new vehicles and housing for both. 

“…It all came to a head last year, when I decided out of exasperation that I wanted to know once and for all where the information was,” the retired energy company state spokesman told the Harbor Light, Harbor Springs weekly newspaper. “I filed a five page Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for 26 questions.  The reply was 114 pages long.  And the most common reply—23 times—was, ‘there is no document’.”

The county commissioner, who represents Harbor Springs and its surrounding townships, found himself filing the FOIA because he couldn’t get information from his own board.  First elected four years ago as a Republican, he became an Independent after being stonewalled by his six republican colleagues on many of his requests for detailed information on various projects.

To warn the public, MacInnis, an experienced public relations expert, took to writing a column in his hometown weekly, occasional guest columns in the daily Petoskey News-Review, and leading area news media through the web of too little information and transparency.  The News-Review editorial board took the unusual position of endorsing MacInnis only in the county commission races.

He and other members of the public had expressed their dismay with the lack of action on the question of a regional public transit service, a budgeted $7 million International Dark Sky Project, buildings and grounds under construction near Mackinaw City with no business plan,  and a county marketing department paying for advertising work already being performed by local chambers of commerce and the region’s tourism bureau.

Commissioners spent the money under a $15 million bond issue without ever presenting the plans for these individual projects to the voters, let alone seeking their approval.

Since the election, MacInnis reports commissioners-elect are busy meeting weekly with various county departments to learn how they operate.  They’ll then attend a five-hour training session in Gaylord presented by MSU Extension for newly elected county government boardmembers.

If top state party leaders haven’t yet figured it out, voter dissatisfaction and distrust in state government is not unique to Emmet County.  The negative sentiment can be felt across Michigan on a variety of issues ranging from the threat posed to the Great Lakes by Enbridge oil’s 63-year-old Pipeline #5 running across the Straits of Mackinac and the Detroit River, to the Flint water system contamination, dysfunctional public schools and the failing infrastructure systems in many of our cities.

The list goes on as the non-profit, non-partisan Ann Arbor-based Center for Michigan is finishes up its 7th annual community engagement of some 3,000 residents across the state of Michigan.  The Center is gathering feedback on the barriers to trust in state government, identifying ideas and priorities for actions that would help restore their trust, and collecting examples of current government programs and initiatives that work.

“Where we find common ground among the problems and pollution solutions you share, we will amplify your ideas to state leaders, so they know what it will take for them to improve or restore public trust in government,” the Center tells participants.  The Center’s final report is expected to be released in early 2017.

Based on the eleven Northern Michigan conversations moderated by this columnist, the dissatisfaction is wide-ranging.  There are calls for better transparency, caps on political campaigning, changing or eliminating term limits for state elected officials, better regulation of lobbyists and control of government-appointed emergency managers.  Most participants felt that Michigan’s election process was fair and honest, contrary to what some national politicians have claimed.

Residents want better maintenance of rural roads and municipal streets, a functional public education system (particularly in metro areas), public health safeguards, environmental protection and reduced state prison costs.  They also believe that economic growth can be best facilitated by state, rather than local or federal government; and they think Michigan needs to change its redistricting law to allow fairer representation in the state legislature, instead of redrawing district lines to protect particular parties.

The message sent by Michigan’s electorate has been loud and clear.  Hopefully, it has been heard and noted.  If no one is listening, then throw the “rascals” out.

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

December 8, 2016 · Filed under Winter


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