After 98 years, the Ingham County Road Commission could come to an end soon. Next week, the county board of commissioners is expected to approve a measure that would bring road operations under its purview.
It's been a turbulent year at the road commission, with accusations of widespread dysfunction and the controversial departure of Operations Manager Jim Benjamin.
WKAR's Mark Bashore spoke with the author of the measure that would dissolve the agency. Democratic County Commissioner Andy Schor says the move would improve accountability and efficiency.
ANDY SCHOR: Well we've got a lot of county departments. We've got a health department, we've got animal control, we've got other departments. The roads should just be another department. It should be under the purview of the elected officials.
This is a matter of accountability. It's a matter of efficiency. Why do we have to have a separate finance person at the road commission? Why do have to have separate human resources? Things like that. We bring this in house, that all goes through the county's HR, it goes through the county's finance, we save money there. We don't necessarily need a five-person board that gets a salary and gets per-diems. We save a little bit of money there.
MARK BASHORE: This kind of move wasn't possible before because the state mandated county road commissions, but that's expected to change soon, which is a big factor here. In the end, how big a factor was dysfunction on the road commission board in getting to where we are today?
SCHOR: I think it's a big piece of it. We've had issues with the road commission probably every two years since I became a county commissioner nine years ago. We've got employee issues now. We've had the townships who have complained about road commission activities. A lot of those problems have been resolved, but it seems like we have new problems every few years. It just makes sense now to do this.
BASHORE: Did Board Chair Shirley Rodgers hasten the end of the board?
SCHOR: I am not someone who's willing to blame any one person on the road commission board because anything that the road commission does is by a majority vote of three. So Shirley Rodgers on her own couldn't do anything without two others. And I think there's dysfunction because you have differing three vote majorities on the road commission board and you don't have trust between the management and the road commission board and the employees. And that all has created dysfunction.
BASHORE: There's a fair amount of momentum behind these changes. Do you expect the commission to pass this and do you expect the state to pass the enabling legislation?
SCHOR: Yes and yes. You don't usually get a one-word response from a politician.
BASHORE: There would be more on the plate of the Board of Commissioners. Can you say to county residents there are no unintended consequences lurking here, any challenges that the board's not equipped to address in this new role?
SCHOR: Well there are always challenges, but I think we are equipped to address (them). Most of the challenges are usually How do you bring two systems into one?' How do you deal with pensions and employee benefits?' and things like that. But we've got a lot of experience with that. We recently brought our 9-1-1 employees under our county controller's supervision.
BASHORE: Joe Guenther is a former Chairman of the Road Commission board. I spoke with him about the future of county road operations without a board. He suggests a subcommittee made up of representatives from the county's 16 townships. Here's what he says.
JOE GUENTHER: This subcommittee could look at their local roads and give a recommendation on bridges that need repair and give everybody fair representation throughout the township that they really haven't had in the past.
BASHORE: What do you make of that? He's implying that residents of the outlying townships are underrepresented.
SCHOR: I don't know that they're underrepresented, but I would agree that we are going to set up an advisory board very similar to our 9-1-1 advisory board, made up of representatives of the 16 townships to look at the budgetary details. So what money is spent on what equipment and what roads? All of the budgetary issues. You know, what are we going to salt and how much are we going to spend? We're going to have an advisory board that recommends to us how to spend the money.
Now, we don't think that's going to handle employee issues or other internal issues, but we think that all of the budgetary issues that come with Act 51 state dollars should be reviewed by folks in the service area, township supervisors and whoever else.
BASHORE: Former Road Commission Ops Manager Jim Benjamin is moving ahead with a lawsuit against the county claiming wrongful termination. Was Mr. Benjamin wrongfully terminated?
SCHOR: I was not involved in any of those discussions so I really don't know.
BASHORE: But from what you do know, would you say he has a case?
SCHOR: I don't know because all I've heard is from the public. I've heard from probably 30 or 40 people from the public who are Jim Benjamin's friends and colleagues who say he was wronged. I have not heard publicly from the road commission board why he was terminated. They did a lot of these in closed session which I'm not involved with. They did a lot of them with him. And I've heard a lot in public comment at our board meetings, but I don't know. I haven't had that discussion.
BASHORE: You've thrown your hat in the ring for the 68th district state rep's seat to replace Joan Bauer. What's the response been to your candidacy so far?
SCHOR: It's been fantastic. I started exploring this in about April. I did a few fundraisers and knocked (on) a whole lot of doors over the summer and met with groups and neighborhoods and others and everybody has been very excited.
I bring a few things to the table. I bring local government experience being a county commissioner for nine years now. And I bring the experience that I've worked in and with the legislators for the last 15 years. I worked in the state Senate and the state House for Democrats and I advocate for cities now. And I work with them. And when I explain to people--I can get in there and on day one I can be effective and I can get things done. I can get bills passed that I know I have other relationships and I have the experience working at the state. People really like that, they've been really excited about that. They know that you only get six years and most people are surprised that Representative Bauer is already on her way out and can't seek reelection. They want someone who can get in there immediately and make a difference and be a leader for Lansing. We need that.
BASHORE: Are you hopeful Joan Bauer will endorse you?
SCHOR: Well I would absolutely take an endorsement from Representative Bauer, but she's indicated to me that she did not plan to endorse or get involved in the race. She's a friend. I've worked very closely with her and I have tremendous respect for her and I hope to do as good of a job as she has done. And I would absolutely take an endorsement, but I don't know that she's going to actually get involved in the race.