Uncertainty follows the resignation of county commissioner

Friday, August 19, 2016 - 9:21pm

Ann Arbor representative Conan Smith stepped down from the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners Tuesday evening to seek a bid for a new position with the county: director of community and economic development. His resignation was effective Saturday.

Smith wrote in a resignation letter posted on his Facebook account outlining his plans to join the Office of Community and Economic Development and focus on issues of inequality in the county. After facing pressure from county residents, he acknowledged a potential conflict of interest in maintaining his position as a commissioner while actively seeking the directorship.

“The challenge is that the person who hires for that job, the County Administrator, is in turn responsible directly to the Board of Commissioners,” he wrote. “I felt that it would wrong to be in the position of both asking the Administrator for a job and simultaneously exercising power over his job.”

Under new state laws amended in 2013, the board has the power to appoint a county resident up to 30 days after Smith’s resignation. A public notice has been posted on the county’s website outlining the application process for District 9 residents interested in filling the vacancy.

Ed Golembiewski, Washtenaw County director of elections, said in an interview with the Daily that no special election would be held if the board does not appoint an interim commissioner.

“Commissioner Smith’s term expires at the end of the year, on December 31st. There wouldn’t be sufficient time for a special election to be held between now and that date,” he said. “I know the board is taking resumes right now to appoint to fill the vacancy.”

Smith, however, is also still up for reelection as a commissioner in November — there is no Republican nominee currently on the ballot — creating the possibility of another vacancy on the board in 2017. If no write-in candidate defeats Smith and OCED chooses to hire him, the board will be forced to hold a special election to fill the position.

This flurry of decisions has come within the last two weeks, creating a period of political flux in county government. OCED has not maintained a permanent director for more than a year, multiple county commissioners are competing in state representative races and Washtenaw County is still in a months-long process of finding a permanent county administrator — the position Smith referred to in his resignation letter.

An Aug. 15 letter from Ann Arbor resident Mary Morgan to the BOC, now made available to the public, expressed concern that Smith had not revealed his plans to resign until the same day of the OCED application deadline. Morgan is also known in the community as the executive director of the CivCity Initiative — a nonprofit based in Ann Arbor dedicated to increasing civic engagement in the community — and former publisher of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.

“If he intended to make no announcement until after the Nov. 8 election, it would prevent even a write­-in challenger from running for the District 9 seat,” she wrote. “It is an obvious ethical problem when an official seeks a publicly funded, highly compensated staff job while still in a position of power and authority over the person responsible for hiring that job.”

Golembiewski explained that if Smith had not disclosed his bid for the OCED position, voters may not have necessarily been informed of the decision.

“There’s no legal mechanism for office to do any communication other than what’s on the ballot,” he said.