The County Leadership Quandary

Much of the current confusion on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners comes down to this: they are attempting to resolve what the future direction of the County is, and what type of leadership should be on board to take it there. 

As we have remarked, the BOC failed to choose between two top candidates for County Administrator, and terminated the process in April 2016.  The resolution to do this  has a useful description of the quandary the BOC found themselves in. They had a “leadership assessment” done for each of their two top candidates, and then failed to reach a consensus among themselves as to which “style” was right for the County.  There was no indication that both candidates did not have the requisite experience and qualifications.  Rather, it had to do with the character of leadership each would bring to the position.

The resolution also includes a significant bit of history: the BOC first “spent a number of months looking at the various types of County government to insure that an appointed County Administrator was the best type of government for the citizens of Washtenaw County”.  In other words, whether to continue with the current structure in which an Administrator is hired by the BOC and answers to them; or an elected Executive who answers only to the voters county-wide.  (Washtenaw County has several top administrators who are elected county-wide, including the Treasurer, the Sheriff, the Prosecutor, and the Water Resources manager.)  Only a few counties in Michigan have an elected County Executive.  This has most often resulted in a near fiefdom and often the BOC has relatively little influence on policy.  L. Brooks Patterson, the CE of Oakland County, is the most notorious example.  Most other Michigan counties have the same structure as Washtenaw. Evidently the BOC decided to stay with the current structure.

So what would be the factors that might enter into the “leadership” question?  There are two choices:

Should our County government concentrate on fulfilling its obligations (the county has a mandate to provide most state- and Federal- directed and funded programs) and providing services to its residents and taxpayers?, or

Should the direction be to make the County Be Something – a more muscular approach in which the County sets a regional direction, initiates new programs, is the leader among local governments, gets noticed regionally, statewide or even nationally for innovation and economic success?

The leadership style of the executive is crucial to these two very different visions of what the county should be.  Do you want a good administrator who keeps the mechanism running smoothly, or a “big picture” person who is restless if not pursuing new ambitions and garnering new influence, new achievements, new visibility for the county and him/herself? Often the second version opens up opportunities for others and can contribute to growth and economic development.  But such leadership can be ruthless in where priorities are assigned, and it is often not to simple service delivery.

The decision looms

If the BOC is trying to choose between those two styles of leadership, no obvious choice for the aggressive leader jumps out from their four top candidates.  Those are Bob Tetens, the current head of Parks and Recreation; Muddasar Tawakkul, Director of compliance and purchasing for the Detroit­/Wayne County Mental Health Authority; Gregory Dill, the current Interim Administrator; and James Palenick, currently Director of economic & business development for Fayetteville, NC.  All of them have solid administrative credentials.  Tetens has a planning background and was previously the director of WATS (the body that oversees transportation planning for Washtenaw County).  He has been a well-respected top administrator at the County for well over a decade and can be expected to have a breadth of understanding of County government.  Dill has been in a variety of County administrative positions, including with the Sheriff’s department, and at one time was in charge of building programs in the County.  Tawakkul is an attorney and has had a number of high-power assignments; his technical knowledge is evidently impressive.  Palenick has a long varied resume from many locations (he has moved around a lot) but at one time long ago was the Dexter Village manager.  It is difficult to see why any of them should be the “visionary” type of manager, though Palenick hints that he views himself that way; “I sincerely believe that I can bring the kind of innovative and strategic leadership that Washtenaw County needs and demands at this time in its organizational evolution”.

As we have detailed, the process is now on fast track and a decision will be made on October 19.

Another piece of the puzzle

But another factor in County leadership is still pending.  That is the opening for the Director of the Office of Community and Economic Development.  As described in the last two posts, the conclusion of that search is still pending.  The question was partly whether Greg Dill, as the Interim Administrator, would choose to fill it before a final decision on the County Administrator.

The OCED position is one of the most powerful of the appointed department chairs.  It is the result of combining three former departments and administers a great many Federally funded programs.  Its previous director, Mary Jo Callan, exerted a great deal of leadership and caused the County to conduct a major study of inequality (of income, housing, circumstance) in the county which has been used as a basis for new policies.  The director of this department, if appointed prior to the hiring of a permanent administrator, could compete with a new administrator in setting directions.

Conan Smith’s application for this position has brought the decision into high focus, as already described, partly because he was a sitting Commissioner.  Smith has been influential on the BOC in the past; he has been Chair in a couple of terms. Now he has resigned his seat – but may be re-elected come November! and meanwhile, it is evident that he has also lost his long-time (well-paid) position as the executive director of a nonprofit organization (Michigan Suburbs Alliance).   All of this is happening in the mix of decisions to be made about the direction of the County as determined by choice of its chief Administrator.  More detail on this melodrama in the next post.


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5 Comments on “The County Leadership Quandary”

  1. Jeff Hayner Says:

    As you mention and no doubt have already seen, Conan Smith led the Michigan Suburbs Alliance – recently re-branded “Metro Matters” into debt, and was rightly relieved of his job there.

    Why anyone would consider him suitable for the OCED position is beyond me, unless there is some sort of political deal in place. I suggest he take his love affair with Wayne County to the next level, and move there. Would that stop him from trying to take Washtenaw County’s money with him via the RTA scheme? Probably not. But on his way out he should pay back the $591 he still owes us for his shoddy stipend bookkeeping.

    • varmentrout Says:

      Yes, you and I both read Dave Askins’ tweets. Informative, yes? I no longer care about the money Conan spent to travel to the Mackinac business conference. That was a long time ago.

      • Jeff Hayner Says:

        I only care in that it’s an indication of a pattern of abuse of public funds that he seems to delight in. Raising the Act 88 levy to send money to his pet projects in Wayne County. Metro Matters seems to exist for him as a source of personal/professional gain. He characterizes their unbridled support of the RTA millage ask thusly: “RTAs vibrant existence creates the promise of future work for us.”

        That they will be spending taxpayer dollars to promote a “Yes” vote on the RTA millage is almost without question. Thought this was against the law? But as the $591 shows, Conan Smith thinks he is above the law. A very dangerous attitude for a public servant to have, no?

  2. Timjbd Says:

    Perhaps the hiring of the OCED Director should await the new County Administrator. If that turns out to be Greg Dill, fine. Whatever deal he has with Conan Smith will be his to conclude and he will be responsible for the results. The new person should be able to put their own people in those key positions, particularly if the job is filled by a “vision” guy/gal. Tough to carry out your vision if you are saddled with your predecessor’s key appointments.

    This should not be an argument for awaiting the next President before naming a replacement on the Supreme Court, though! That process is clearly spelled out in the constitution, dammit.

    As it stands now, the possible appointment of Smith by Dill carries a taint that would unnecessarily bring into question everything they do thereafter.

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