The good ole boys are back, and making up for lost time.
On Wednesday, the Grand Traverse County board voted 6-3 to strip the county's elected drain commissioner of county soil erosion duties.
Just listen to Commissioner Larry Fleis: "I have no control over an elected official. The only control we have on him is budgetary" — and, in this case, deciding who enforces soil erosion laws.
Commissioners cited possible cost savings, efficiencies and greater oversight among the benefits of turning the job of monitoring soil erosion over to county building inspectors instead of the civil engineers trained in erosion control and related issues who are doing the job now.
"Greater oversight?" By whom? Members of the county board? Since when are county commissioners supposed to have "oversight" over other elected officials, like the drain commissioner or the sheriff or the county clerk?
Particularly when commissioners were essentially doing the bidding of developers and builders who didn't like having to deal with the drain commissioner's office.
Does that mean if Fleis and company don't like the way the sheriff — another independent elected official — is going about his business they'll try to mangle his budget or interfere in how he does business? Taken at face value, the answer is yes.
This was the second time in the past eight years the board has moved to strip the independent, elected drain commissioner of soil erosion oversight, both times at the urging of local developers and contractors.
Under state law, the county board gets to decide who monitors soil erosion but it's a natural fit for the drain commissioner and that's the way it has been done here for decades.
The takeover effort in 2004 fell short in part because it was so clumsily insulting to voters. The county board said it would leave soil erosion duties with the soon-to-be-elected drain commissioner — who turned out to be Kevin McElyea — only if commissioners were convinced the person voters elected was actually "qualified" for the job. Just to save voters from themselves, of course.
Now, apparently, they think the guys who do construction code enforcement — inspecting electrical and plumbing work, for instance — are "qualified" to oversee soil erosion work.
The truth, of course, is that they probably don't really believe the construction code office is the right place for soil erosion duties, but construction code reports to the county administrator who reports to the county board, and what commissioners want is to be able to influence those decisions.
Some residents and environmental groups said they didn't see a reason to change; Commissioner Ross Richardson, who finally voted to keep soil erosion responsibilities with McElyea, said he had not gotten as much feedback on any other issue.
But some developers had expressed frustrations with McElyea's office.
In his defense, McElyea said he was surprised by the decision and by claims of complaints.
"We've not been getting complaints — the only complaints we get are from neighbors who think the developers are not being good stewards of the land," McElyea said. "Then we have to act as referee."
What voters want is someone with expertise in the field to make solid judgments based on the facts and good science and with an eye toward protecting groundwater and preventing erosion; those determinations must not be made based on who someone knows instead of what someone has done.
This is bad public policy and power politics at its worst. Voters need to remember all this in November, when evey seat on the board is up for election.
The soil erosion six are: Larry Fleis, Addison Wheelock Jr., Richard Thomas, Herb Lemcool, Robert D. Hentschel and Jason R. Gillman.