Cost of ballot proposals: Big lawyer fees!

Published On: Aug 31 2012 06:20:39 PM EDT
Updated On: Aug 31 2012 06:25:23 PM EDT

Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano's ongoing pay scandal is so embarrassing to the County Commission that commissioners such as Bernard Parker feel compelled to act.

DETROIT -

Having grown up out east and having worked in Maine for three years and Florida for nearly a decade, I was not exposed to the frenzy associated with ballot proposals.

That is not to say they don’t happen there. Still, based on my experience, there are few places in America as ballot proposal happy as we are here in Michigan. Depending on what the Michigan Supreme Court decides in the next few days we could wind up voting on no fewer than six ballot proposals statewide, and in places like Wayne County the number could plump to ten! By any standard that is a lot. It is also asking a lot of an electorate to wade through that many questions and sort out the nuances required to make an advised decision. This comes after voters are continually barraged by radio and television ads on both sides of every question day and night for months.

By the time voters hit the voting booths they’re cross eyed with statistics, recriminations and outright lies. Having been keen student of American Civics I realize this is why we have a republic instead of a “strict democracy”. Despite one of the ballot proposal tag lines “let the voters decide”, our founders wanted elected officials to make these kinds of decisions not majority votes such as this. There is much to be said for that.

Read more: Wayne County executive office, Commission battle

Still, railing against ballot proposals is not the point here. We have them, we are stuck with them and I’ll put my checkmarks next to them when I get there this coming Election Day. The point is that in as much as Michigan is ballot proposal crazed, the ballot proposal system itself is out of control. As best I can tell, the only people prospering are the lawyers. Just yesterday I spent three mind numbing hours in the Michigan Supreme Court watching the highest priced legal talent in the state argue four ballot questions back to back. In a courtroom packed with lawyers, I could hear the cash register ringing in the distance.

Read: Wayne County Commission's power to approve compensation
Read: Removal of the Wayne County Executive from Office by the Governor

There were attorneys for the proponents, the opponents and the state. There were counsels, co-counsels and hangers on of all pin-stripe. And for all the supposed brain power, the proceedings became repetitive about a half hour in. Round and round they went, splitting the hairs of whether the particular ballot proposal was an alteration or an abrogation of the Michigan Constitution. That seemingly insignificant point matters because the state law surrounding ballot proposals requires the questions themselves to tell voters in the wording, when the petitions are passed around, exactly the impact on the state’s constitution [and other laws].

If it is not there, the proposal is deemed invalid. It seemed, [and I will confess limited legal acumen] that the four proposals in the dock: the “second” bridge, the casino addition, the collective bargaining in the constitution and a 2/3 majority required to raise taxes did not meet that standard. We will soon see where the Supreme Court comes down. But the question that ran through my mind over and over again was “why is this being decided in the Supreme Court?” The system does not vet the constitutionality of ballot questions in advance. The system is entirely too loose, the Board of Canvassers [more political body than functional decision maker] doesn’t appear to work well, and the rules appear frustratingly inefficient. So we bring on the lawyers. Ca-Ching!
Worse yet, that’s just the beginning. Tonight on Local 4 news we broke the story of the brewing legal battle between the Wayne County Commission and Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano’s office over three more ballot questions. They are linked here.

After the Turkia Awada Mullin pay disaster, and the FBI investigation into Ficano, former Deputy County Executive Azam Elder and many of his underlings there was considerable embarrassment. The County Commission felt it needed to have more oversight power to prevent these kinds of disastrous expenditures of public money. It voted to send the three questions to appear on the Wayne County November ballot. The two most import give the Commission the power to ask the Governor to remove the County Executive and oversight over county appointee pay. Ficano’s office, through former Federal Prosecutor and current Deputy Wayne County Executive Jeffrey Collins, told the commission it should think twice about green lighting those proposals. Collins called them unconstitutional and unenforceable. He as much as threatened legal action should these ballot questions pass. Not wanting to appear to go against the will of the people, Ficano’s office put out a statement saying it’s simply asking questions any voter would ask.

"We want to make sure the Commission is aware of a number of issues that any taxpayer in the county could raise," said June West, spokesperson for Executive Ficano.

That is code for perhaps Ficano wouldn’t sue to test the constitutionality of these questions but perhaps a Wayne County resident might. So, if these questions pass on Election Day there is nothing to say this won’t end up in a courtroom where the $200 an hour meter will run in legal conference rooms all across Metro Detroit. This begs the question yet again, isn’t there a way to decide the constitutionality or legality of these questions before they appear in print? The answer is no. There ought to be and there needs to be.

If we are going to persist in “Ballot-Palooza” as the Supreme Court hearing was dubbed yesterday, we should seriously consider requiring our elected officials to sort out the unwieldy, inefficient and impossibly costly ballot proposal system we are using. In theory letting the voters decide is a nice idea, in practice it’s a living nightmare!

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