and the life of a county clerk
From the Clerk-Register. I've been in the habit of sending a weekly email message to the more than 50 Clerk-Register staff in five locations. Here's the first four letters:
Monday, January 10 (first letter):
Thanks to everyone for the nice welcome I have received as your new Clerk-Register. It's been a lot of fun already, and I'm very much looking forward to the year.
But thanks most especially for all the great work you do! I know that sometimes the people who come through our office may seem indifferent, but believe me, there is a lot of appreciation among citizens throughout the county for your hard and careful work.
Of course, as you know, it's never enough just to complete all our tasks accurately and quickly. We must always remember to treat everyone who comes into the office with courtesy and respect. That means focusing on the customer, paying attention and listening. People can tell when you're preoccupied, when your mind is wandering. To gain their confidence, you have to put other concerns aside while you're helping them. Sometimes that's not easy, I know. But it should be our goal.
In the coming weeks, after the election consolidation brouhaha is settled, I will meet with each of you individually.
I think there has been just a bit of confusion about my name. The following should clear that up:
Let's have another great week!
Tuesday, January 18 (second letter):
Within living memory of our oldest citizens, Washtenaw County had about a hundred and fifty school districts. Most consisted of four sections of land, with a few dozen farm families, a three-member school board, a teacher, and a one-room schoolhouse. Each district had an annual June meeting at the schoolhouse to choose the school board members.
Rural students who wished to attend high school had to travel to the nearest city which had one. As demand grew for education beyond eighth grade, more cities and villages began to build high schools. Rural districts were annexed to bolster the tax base. When all the one-room districts were absorbed, each community with a high school was at the center of a consolidated school district, roughly circular in shape, superimposed on our checkerboard of square townships.
As the school districts grew fewer and larger, the June annual meeting became the June school board election. And that grew into a whole school election infrastructure, duplicating the one organized by cities and townships for holding federal, state, and local government elections. School districts have been maintaining a duplicate set of registration cards for authenticating voters at the polls. They have a duplicate set of election precincts, and a duplicate structure for hiring and training and paying election workers.
No one says that school districts were doing a bad job at holding elections. But they were doing the exact same job as our township and city clerks, and often repeating the exact same clerical tasks, like updating a voter's address.
The Legislature has now declared an end to this untidy dual system. No longer will school districts maintain voter registrations and hold elections. No longer will any elections be held on Mondays. No longer will there be two completely incompatible kinds of elections. No longer can elections take place just about any day of the year.
There is a lot of controversy about the new election consolidation law. I think the Legislature made some big mistakes, and we are in for some administrative headaches. But it is our duty to follow the law.
Probably the biggest problem is that the responsibility for school board elections (which will now be in May) is left hanging.
It makes the most sense for city and township clerks to run these elections within their jurisdiction, just as they do all other elections. The local clerks are already equipped to do every required task. And each voter would have a single polling place for all elections.
But the local clerks are not required to participate (to "opt in" for school board elections), and some don't want to. It means holding elections regularly every year instead of every other year. It means two or more different ballots in the many precincts split by school district lines. It may mean hiring additional staff — though the cost would be covered by the schools.
If a city or township clerk declines to hold school board elections, the responsibility falls to the county clerk. We can do it. And the school districts will pay our expenses. But it's not a good idea.
First of all, we would have to re-create the election infrastructure that already exists in every township and city. We'd have to rent polling places, hire election workers, process absentee ballot requests, etc., etc. And we'd have to hire many more county clerk staff to accomplish it all. This can't possibly be the most economical way to hold a school election.
Second, if any non-school ballot issue or office vacancy is on the ballot, then the affected cities and townships have to hold the May election anyway, in their regular precincts. That means our preparation goes to waste, and our costs won't be covered by the school districts. Voters will also be confused if the May polling place is subject to change depending on what's on the ballot.
Third, once the county clerk's office has worked out how to hold a regular local election, bypassing the cities and townships, the Legislature is going to notice that we are back to a dual election system, with different government agencies duplicating efforts. It will seem very logical to take election authority away from the cities and townships, and let counties run the entire process.
This may not be a disadvantage, if you'd rather that Michigan be like most other states, where all election matters are handled at the county level. But it would seriously erode the powers and reason for being of township governments. That's why the Michigan Townships Association has recommended that all townships "opt-in" to take responsibility for school board elections. I hope our townships are listening.
All this will be decided by the end of January — so stay tuned!
This is an admittedly longwinded message at the beginning of a short — but very busy — week. Undoubtedly a lot of business which accumulated on Monday will show up at our counters today, perhaps as much as doubling the normal load. Meanwhile, the extreme cold weather, slippery driving conditions, and short daylight hours add to the stress.
It takes extra effort to be kind and patient with customers — and one another — on days like today. I am grateful to each and every one of you for making that effort.
Monday, January 24 (third letter):
(1) Last Wednesday, as part of the election consolidation process, we brought together the city and township clerks and school district representatives at Pittsfield Township Hall, in order to convene meetings of the Election Coordination Committee of each school district within the county.
None of us is entirely happy with the election consolidation law, and all of us (myself included) had gaps in our knowledge of the process. New duties are being imposed, new arrangements have to be made, and deadlines are very tight. I have heard about "ugly" confrontations over consolidation among officials in other counties. But Washtenaw's meetings proceeded in a calm and constructive spirit that is a credit to our community.
Not everything was resolved, but I think everyone came away with the sense that we'll be able to conquer this problem.
(2) The United County Officers Association (UCOA) is meeting in Lansing this week; the chief deputies and I will each be attending at least part of the sessions. I'll be there (and out of the office) on Tuesday.
(3) My daughter has been learning in school about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement. When she and I talked about this, I remembered an experience related by a friend of mine, who attended high school in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, an affluent Detroit suburb.
In March 1968, a few months after the Detroit riots, and three weeks before he was assassinated, Dr. King came to Grosse Pointe High School to give a speech. Apparently he was not well received at first; some of the high school students yelled insults and curses to shout him down. It must have been a very tense scene, in a crowded gymnasium. Rather than ignore the disruption or respond in kind, he invited the hecklers to stand with him at the podium.
I don't know if they accepted the invitation, but this act transformed the crowd's mood and the moment, and it made a deep impression on my friend. It was a dramatic demonstration of the power of listening and paying attention.
In any interaction, is human nature to mirror the attitude and behavior of the person you're dealing with. Rudeness is reflected with rudeness. It takes inner strength and will to overcome the vicious circle, to respond to difficult people with courtesy and respect. It doesn't always work, but it is wonderful when it does.
Have a great week, and keep warm!
Monday, January 31 (fourth letter):
This morning brings news of the opening of Michael Jackson's trial on child molestation charges in California. Undoubtedly we will be hearing much more about this through the media in the coming months, whether we want to or not.
In the legal system, which includes each of us in the Clerk-Register's office, we strive every day to conduct fair trials and impose just punishments. In theory, the system is the same for the rich and the poor, the friendless and the well-connected. But highly publicized celebrity trials challenge this theory, and sow cynicism, division, and misconception among the public about the courts.
We involve our citizens in the process as jurors, as witnesses, as constituents, as taxpayers. It can be maddening when saturation media coverage of a far-away criminal case changes their attitude toward us, and affects their behavior in our courthouse.
But consider how much harder it is to play host to such a trial, to live for months under intense national and international media scrutiny.
When it happened in the county where I used to live, the picture of our circuit court which splashed onto television sets all over the world (including through a made-for-TV movie about the case) was almost unrecognizable. The whole outside world came to conclusions about our judges and procedures which were the opposite of the ordinary truth. Locals called it "the reality inversion."
Keep this in mind as you hear cable TV "experts" dissect the courts and judges and prosecutors and procedures in Santa Barbara County in the next few weeks.
Washtenaw County may not be home to figures like O. J. Simpson, Martha Stewart, or Michael Jackson. But we do have a much higher profile in the world than other counties our size. And of course we deal with local and Detroit news media all the time. It's only a matter of time before CNN finds some reason to bestow attention on us.
It's not enough just to strive for justice and fairness. We also need to strive for grace under pressure.
Have a great week!
....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum — Comments
Post-Transition Notes. In the end, the transition went smoothly, the new chief deputies have been well received, and everything seems to be going well.
Despite adverse weather, the swearing-in ceremony had an overflow crowd. Many thanks to all who attended, or wanted to.
The Ann Arbor News has run a couple of articles about the Clerk's office recently:
The biggest Clerk-Register issue so far is election consolidation, of which more later.
....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum — Comments
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