Leelanau Needs Cooperation and Transparency in Government

Every governmental jurisdiction needs cooperation and transparency in the way elected officials and appointed workers run the show. Calling for elected officials to get along, keep their mission uppermost in mind, and not engage in power struggles is hardly novel.

Cooperation and transparency have not always been the core principles guiding the work of the Leelanau County Commission—although the Board has very recently made great strides. They have involved the county in the work of identifying and developing attainable housing, building partnerships with non-profits whose goals align with the Board of Commissioners’. Their research and work are bringing fiber optic cable and towers to underserved areas of the county.

The current Commission just passed—after 30 years of wrangling—a septic ordinance to protect the watershed. They have improved relationships with staff at the Government Center—the folks who give you your marriage license, finalize your adoption and ensure that our local elections are well-run. They have expanded recycling programs and established public comment at the beginning and end of every one of their meetings.

All good.

But ten years of observing the County Commission at work proves that these accomplishments were hard fought, a long time in coming, and by no means guaranteed to remain in the next term.

In the last cycle, the Commission squabbled over wearing masks to meetings early in the pandemic, and tried to roll back spending on Early Childhood programming that was funded by a referendum, claiming that voters made a mistake, and it was their job to override the public’s wishes. They established mandated prayer at their meetings (but only by Christian clergy from this county). In what appears to be a personal vendetta, Republicans on the BOC attempted to wrest control of county finances and human resources away from the Clerk who has competently handled them for decades.

If I could set goals for a strong and productive Leelanau County Commission, the first one would be: Stay in your lane. 

The point of have a bi-partisan County Commission is representing all the citizens—the strong progressives as well as the dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. If democracy works the way it’s supposed to, the folks who have lived and farmed in Leelanau for generations will have their views represented, as will those who moved to paradise more recently, and are excited by its beauty and opportunity.

Leelanau County is home to a National Park as well as the Grand Traverse Band Indian Reservation. It’s a mix of rural, agricultural land and high-end resort towns. All of these varied interests and needs must be acknowledged and addressed by the Board of Commissioners. The BOC does not have time for pursuing individual beefs and enthusiasms.

Recently, the BOC has been forced into defending our competently and fairly run elections. The County Sheriff (who calls himself a ‘Constitutional Sheriff’) organized a group of election skeptics, ironically meeting in the County Building while the Clerk attended a conference on how to run clean elections.

These factors—‘constitutional’ officials, and election deniers trying to gum up civic processes—are popping up everywhere, even after a drama-free primary season. The Leelanau County Commission isn’t the only civic body trying to stay the course during political upheaval.

But stay the course they must.

There is hope. In Centerville Township, a greatly expanded lakeside campground has been proposed—one that would create an RV village larger than any town in the county, with a water park and three pools (not to mention traffic, septic and lake health concerns). Over 200 people showed up for the first explanation of the proposal, crowding into a vintage building with no air conditioning or restrooms.

They were residents from all over the county, demonstrating that people are paying attention. Speakers were well-prepared and polite. There was bipartisan cooperation and transparency.

It can be done.

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