Democracy in Oakland County is going to look different in 2013, and likely much more Republican. A series of well-orchestrated political moves changed the rules of the political process. Thanks to what Democrats are calling “the Republican Power Grab,” a new state law reduced the number of commissioners from 25 to 21, and handed over authority to draw the districts to the commissioners themselves. The new authority has given the majority, the Republicans, the opportunity to draw districts that ensure Republican control of Oakland County.
The new law, PA 280 was enacted with “immediate effect” and impacts only Oakland County. The redistricting maps that were already created and approved by the courts are no longer in compliance. The act also stripped the Apportionment Committee of their authority to draw districts. Instead it gave that power directly to the commissioners themselves.
Democrats sued over the constitutionality of PA 280. They won in the Appellate court, but the State Supreme Court voted along party lines to uphold it.
The Apportionment Committee map, drawn with the expectation of 25 districts, had originally been upheld by courts in the appeal process. Republicans lobbied the state legislature and the Gov. Snyder to have a new law enacted to quickly change the way redistricting is done. E-mails obtained by the Oakland County Democratic Party under the Freedom of Information Act show that County Executive L. Brooks Patterson worked with Reps. Eileen Kowall, (R -White Lake) and Marty Knollenberg (R -Troy) to push the legislation through.
While Patterson has said this move was to save the county money, emails reveal the goal was gaining political power for Oakland County Republicans. One email by Kowall said, “I guess it would also help to have a legitimate explanation as to why we waited until now, after redistricting plans have been submitted, to take these bills up. I’m thinking that we claim we were having trouble agreeing on how many seats the BOC would ultimately have.”
Patterson had county lobbyists pushing to ensure enough votes for the bill and because Republicans hold a majority of seats, they drew and passed a map that strongly favors themselves. The map is likely to create a 14-7 majority on the board.
At the April 13 meeting, Commissioner Dave Woodward (D-Royal Oak) asked Commissioners to consider a map that more closely follows the requirements of the law. He said the Republican-drawn map violates MCL 46.404, including provisions that, “All districts shall be . . . as nearly equal population as is practicable,” and “Townships, villages and cities shall be divided only if necessary to meet the population standard.” and “Districts shall not be drawn to effect partisan political advantage.
Dividing core communities
Commissioner Helaine Zach (D- Huntington Woods) criticized Republicans for dividing core communities. “I know that my district is very upset. We talk about the value of the Woodward corridor. We funded the Woodward Five Sustainability Project. Now we divided up the Woodward communities that are really working hard to collaborate and build something together and we divide them up unnecessarily among three commissioners. We are doing a disservice to our residents and to the constituents. It’s not in their best interest, but no one seems to want to hear this.”
In addition to breaking up the Woodward Five, the approved map pits current Democratic Commissioners against each other. In Ferndale the 25th District is eliminated and current Commissioner Craig Covey’s home will be in the 21st District along with Commissioner Helaine Zack’s in Huntington Woods, currently the 22nd District.
In the newly created 21st District, Commissioner Janet Jackson (D-Southfield) and Commissioner Jim Nash (D-Farmington Hills) would be pitted against each other. Instead of competing with Jackson, Nash has decided to put his environmental passion to work running for the position of Water Resources Commissioner, a position formerly known as Drain Commissioner.
The Court of Appeals dismissed the Democrat’s lawsuit, ruling the plan does meet State requirements and said the Supreme Court already ruled in the prior lawsuit that state Republicans had not acted for partisan advantage.
Zack and Covey are both gearing up for the August primaries that will determine which one of them gets to represent Hazel Park, Ferndale, Royal Oak Township, Huntington Woods and part of Oak Park. Both say they have much respect for the other candidate, and both are confident they can win. While not campaigning, they are united in the fight against the “power grab.” On May 1 they held a fundraiser to cover costs of the legal battle.
In a recent press release Woodward said, “This is not Republicans versus Democrats; this is Republicans versus democracy, justice and the rule of law. Oakland County voters deserve better.”
Kevin Howley, a democrat whose experience is in business and nonprofit turn-around, is currently running against L. Brooks Patterson for position of Oakland County Executive. Disappointed by the ruling, Howley said, “The decision demonstrated to voters that partisan politics trumps the rule of law. More importantly, it demonstrated that with Republicans holding substantial majorities in both houses of the legislature and on the County Commission, coupled with a partisan Supreme Court and a Republican governor, citizens are left without checks and balances in the system.”
Patterson kept his response brief, stating that justice was done.
As far as having fewer commissioners to represent voters in Oakland County, Patterson’s office was unconcerned; pointing out that Oakland County still has the highest number of commissioners.
Along with the loss in seats and the expected further gap between Republicans and Democrats, voters in Pontiac were ignored when the Board voted along party lines to appoint a Republican, Angela River, to replace Democrat Tim Greimel when he resigned to serve in the State House of Representatives. The March 27 appointment ignored Board rules to appoint people from the same party as the departing Commissioner, giving the Republicans a 16-9 advantage.
In response to concern over the reduction in representation, Patterson’s Media and Communications Officer Bill Mullan pointed towards Democracy in Wayne County, “If that’s the premise, then Wayne County voters – a majority of who are Democrats – must really feel diluted. After all, Wayne County only has 15 commissioners representing 1.8 million people, or 120,000 per commissioner. Here, each commissioner will represent roughly 57,000 people.”