Bay County has a rich and colorful history but, when it comes to politics, that color has historically been a deep shade of blue. Based on the formidable pairing of union members and solid midwestern values, Bay County has largely been a Democratic stronghold for as long as most remember.
A few things have happened in the last few years to cause a slight shift in that certainty. First, the area's population dwindled, many of the union jobs went away and the power of the Democratic vote began to weaken a little. In 2010, the Tea Party movement swept a few Republicans into office, including seats at the County Commission level. The County Commission itself is now nearly balanced between the two major parties, with the Democrats holding a slim majority.
This primary election season has brought new challenges to incumbent Democratic officeholders, as their challenges are not only coming from the Republican Party, but from inside their own ranks. Incumbent Sheriff John Miller is facing a formidable challenge from Robert “Bobby” Lee and respected, long time County Clerk Cynthia Luczak's position has been targeted by newcomer Howard Wetters.
Of the races in which an incumbent faces a primary opponent from his own party, the race for the County Executive is probably the most interesting. The August 7th Democratic Primary contest pits Thomas Hickner, who is seeking his fourth term in office, against Mark McFarlin, a Bay County Private Investigator.
Both men were given the opportunity to address questions about the race and about Bay County by Review Magazine. Here are their unedited responses:
Review: What do you believe is the primary role of the County Executive?
Thomas Hickner: The Bay County Executive has 3 basic responsibilities. First, to manage the day-to-day activities of the 11 Act 139 county departments. Bay County employs over 500 staff that provides vital public services to the residents of Bay County. Our annual budget exceeds $120 million. Since 1993, we have balanced the budget every year with no increase in general fund tax rates, while maintaining a healthy "rainy day" fund.
Our second role is to promote cooperation between all local governments in Bay County. We have successfully implemented, managed and supported many shared service efforts. Our 911 system, Sheriff road patrol contracts with many townships throughout Bay County, emergency management training and support activities, and cooperation on purchases and implementation of various information technologies are several examples. Shared services will continue to be a priority, which will produce cost effective, efficient local services.
Third, to promote economic growth. We should focus on job retention, expansion of existing local businesses, and attraction of new business to the region. Working with other local officials and private sector business leaders, we were successful in creating Bay Future, Inc, a private-public sector economic development partnership. We have supported Bay Future with an annual investment of $50,000 in county funds. We routinely work with existing business owners and support them as successful local employers.
Mark McFarlin: The primary role of the County Executive is to propose a budget to the County Commission. In addition to submitting a budget, the County Executive appoints department heads to departments that have no elected officials. This office has constitutional oversight over the County Commission in that it has veto power over their rulings. In other words, this office because it is an elected office, safeguards citizens from a reckless and undemocratic County Commission.
Only four counties Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Bay out of 83 counties have an elected County Executive. The County Executive is an effective office, like the Governor of a state, if the office provides strong leadership.
It is unfortunate that the current County Executive, Thomas L. Hickner with 20 years experience has failed to hold the County Commission in check.
Review: There has been much debate over the provision of utilities and other services to the citizens of the Cities and Townships of Bay County, particularly in the areas of water, sewer and public safety. Where do you stand on the issue of consolidation and do you have any specific examples to support your position?
McFarlin: Consolidation between cities, townships, and the county is only now being considered, because budgets have been mismanaged over the last generation. The focus should not be the consolidation between municipal entities. The direction under my administration will be the consolidation and reform of departments from within the county. The logic to not consolidate for instance in the area of public safety is rooted in the fact that public safety entities already depend on formal and informal agreements to assist each other in times of crisis and where cooperation is needed.
Hickner: Under current local policy, the County Executive does not have direct responsibility for the water and sewer systems in Bay County. However, I have actively supported efforts to construct a new water plant that will be built in the next 3 or so years. This new plant will produce better drinking water as a result new technology and by tapping into the Midland-Saginaw raw water supply system.
With the assistance of Michigan State University, we are in the process of completing a comprehensive review of current law enforcement services. Our goal is to further cooperation between every local law enforcement agency. Our 911 system has improved public safety through a variety of investments in new technology and equipment in the county, cities and townships.
Review: What economic development opportunities to you see for Bay County and how do you believe the County Executive / County Commission can assist local businesses in capitalizing on this?
Hickner: Bay County will continue to actively support aggressive economic development activities. Regional efforts are also important. The Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance will continue to have my support and cooperation.
A diversified local economy is essential and should recognize the importance of agriculture, manufacturing, research and development, tourism, professional services, and retail trade. County government's role is to provide quality local public services that improve our quality of life. Our efforts should focus on excellent educational systems, a safe community, transportation systems that meet the needs of residents and businesses, expanded recreational opportunities, and ongoing enhancement of our environment, particularly clean water.
McFarlin: As the next Bay County Executive, it will be a priority to reform the equalization department. It has been a burden on the private sector and has increased unemployment by a levy of tax on property owned by businesses. The tax needs to be abolished in order to stimulate growth in the commercial sector and provide needed employment in Bay County.
Furthermore, within the public sector county positions, under my administration it will also be proposed to reform the current 30 year to a 25 year and out for government employees. This reform to a 25-year policy will contribute to new hiring and more employment and will strengthen and sustain the pension fund.
Review: Do you support continued special funding for the Bayanet (Bay Area Narcotics Enforcement Team) and why?
Hickner: Yes. Provided their focus is on addressing the distribution and sale of hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine.
McFarlin: No. It will be proposed to end this special funding. Bayanet does not have the oversight that is needed to ensure the citizens that proper procedures are followed. Narcotic units such as Bayanet are very vulnerable to corruption and rogue activity. It is my contention that the County Sheriff is in a better position to develop an effective plan to prevent and combat narcotics. Furthermore, the county via an elected sheriff, not unelected members directing a special unit would have full and proper oversight to prevent abuse of power.
Review: Why should the voters select you, over your opponent, in the Democratic Primary Election?
McFarlin: The voters need to know that August 7th will be their only chance to determine this election for County Executive, because there is no Republican opposition in November. August 7th gives them a choice between two democrats, myself Mark A. McFarlin - a fiscal conservative and the current County Executive, Thomas L. Hickner, a tax and spend liberal who is out of touch with the citizens.
It is my contention that after 20 years of the current administration and of many failed policies, it is due time for new leadership and responsible government. It is now in the hands of the people, they have the power to decide the fate of this office.
Hickner: Bay County government is a very complex public corporation that offers a broad array of vital public services to the residents of our community. Given my experience and education, I am the most qualified candidate. During my tenure, our record of accomplishment is significant. We have balanced every budget, supported effective public safety, improved the public health of local residents by implementing innovative Public Health Department programs, supported programs and services for our older residents through the Division on Aging, and expanded recreational opportunities for residents of all ages.
My administration has focused on maintaining direct services to the public while minimizing the layoff of employees thru attrition. We have maintained excellent relations with the county's 13 unions, and reached excellent win-win agreements with all. Our pension system is overfunded and we have made significant progress on pre funding retiree health costs.
While Mr. McFarlin should be congratulated for seeking public office, he has no management or financial background in general and little understanding of how to make sure the public receives efficient and effective public services at the county level.
There are Other Candidates
Under Michigan State Election Law, only the Democratic and Republican Parties are allowed to participate in the Primary Election process. Michigan has three other parties, which have earned automatic ballot access, the Green Party, the Libertarian Party and the US Taxpayers Party. While none of these parties will be represented in the August Primary election, all will have local, county, state and national candidates on the Fall Ballot:
A press release from the Green Party made the following point on the Primary Election Process: “It is interesting that the two entrenched parties talk about cost control, but choose to use publicly financed elections to choose their candidates. These elections cost millions of dollars nationally. We believe the caucus method, used by the Greens, Libertarians and Taxpayer's Party's, not only is a more cost effective solution, it ensures that each candidate truly represent the ideology of their party and of like-minded, independent voters in the region. It is fine to practice Democracy in the August Primary, but we hope you vote for the progressive ideas in our State's minor parties this November.”