The County Drain Commissioner Is One of our Most Important Elected Officials
Dr. Lynne Heasley
College of Arts and Sciences Staff Writer
Huh? And, btw, what is a drain commissioner?
Dr. Lynne Heasley, associate professor of history and environmental and sustainability studies, was among a panel of three who helped answer that question at the second Honors College Lyceum titled “Our Blue Marble.”
The drain commissioner (a.k.a. water resources commissioner) creates and maintains the county drains and provides storm water guidance and support to a county.
Heasley illustrated the drain commissioner’s importance with a case concerning the once-healthy trout-filled Coldwater River (a.k.a. Little Thornapple) in Barry County whose banks were cleared of trees and debris to make the river flow faster and flood less upstream. Instead, the commissioner’s decision summoned the wrath of riparian property owners and fishermen, especially when a thick layer of black and smelly sludge appeared.
“It destroyed a decade of collaborative work to protect habitat in a public-private restoration program,” said Heasley. “And yet, the drain commissioner of Barry County expanded the scope of the project without getting required permits from the state—or informing the two neighboring counties responsible for the inter-county drain.”
Heasley said this case was reminiscent of a newspaper article about a 1970s-era drain commissioner in Shiawassee County who declared that the office is “more powerful than the governor” because it can levy taxes without approval by the county commission or the state legislature.
The debacle of Coldwater River actually goes back to the early nineteenth century and Michigan’s complex environmental history, Heasley said. People moving Westward avoided settlement in Michigan because of its swamps and water-borne disease. Territorial and state laws allowed for swamp drainage in order to make way for agriculture.
The Michigan Drain Code of 1956 authorizes county drain commissioners to assess the costs of drain work to landowners, which makes the office a powerful local and state position, unique in the country. The code is the primary statute that mandates the responsibilities of the county drain commissioner and provides for the creation and maintenance of county drains.
Each drain has a contributing area (similar to a watershed) called a drainage district, which is a public corporation that is legally and financially responsible for maintaining the functioning of the drain.
All costs are paid for by drain assessments, and the drain commissioner acts as a steward for each drainage district. She keeps the historical, financial, and easement records; schedules maintenance; responds to service requests; requires permits for activities affecting the drain; borrows funds to pay for costs; and assesses the costs back to the landowners, transportation authorities, and municipalities, according to their estimated benefit. Apportionments—the fixed proportion owed by an entity for any costs—are adjusted as land use changes.
Dr. Denise Keele
Dr. Denise Keele, associate professor of political science, said that the concept of federalism also helped make the drain commissioner powerful. Federalism defines the constitutional relationship between the local, state and federal government.
“The 10th Amendment says that states have rights,” said Keele. “It assumes that local officials know more about their resources than those in higher levels of government. Consequently, the people can exercise more control over their lives by voting for their local officials.”
However, federalism and local control have led to a proliferation of elected offices, many of which voters don’t know about or understand.
“Different states assume local control in different ways based on what’s important in a particular state,” said Keele. “One of the more powerful but obscure offices in Michigan is the county drain commissioner who has the authority to tax and the responsibility to control the prevalence of water all around us.”
Michigan has 65 hydrologic unit code level 8 watersheds, thousands of drainage districts and 1,100 inter-county drains covering 6,000 square miles in 83 counties. Kalamazoo County is an intensely water-connected environment, with about 350 drainage districts, more than 360 lakes and ponds, and hundreds of miles of streams, rivers, and drains. Drain commissioners work to control flooding, manage storm water and prevent soil erosion, however, many don’t typically have a background in hydrology, engineering, agriculture, or environmental sustainability.
“The people who run for the office are usually lifelong residents and ‘nice guys’ who pledge to do a good job,” said Keele. “But voters are largely unfamiliar with the office, which is usually found at the bottom of the ballot sheet and often overlooked. Kalamazoo County is lucky to have Pat Crowley as our drain commissioner.”
Crowley has a Ph.D. from the soil and water division of the Michigan State University Department of Agricultural Engineering and an M.S. degree in water resources management from the University of Wisconsin.
The twice-elected commissioner first came to office in 2008.
“The Coldwater River disaster was wrong for the environment and illegal,” said Crowley. “The property owners of Barry County—as people everywhere—have a love for the land where they live.
On the other hand, Crowley said this disaster created a strong and sympathetic response among drain commissioners who immediately formed a technical subgroup with the State and private professionals to create detailed guidance for working within a stream environment.
Dr. Patricia Crowley
“We can tax and there’s power in taxes,” said Crowley. “That’s why people are afraid of us. They don’t expect to be taxed more than the taxes they already pay.”
However, drainage is fundamental to our health and welfare. It helps keep us connected, she said. Taxes pay for drainage of the water that runs underground throughout our cities and rural lands. Drainage allows us to get the kids to school and send fire trucks to burning houses.
“When people come to our office, they are distressed about damage caused by water,” said Crowley. “They are also angry and have no other way of venting their anger. My office tries to help people through an organizational structure of collaboration, listening, problem solving and capacity building.”
The political system needs to adapt to our new environmental realities, added Crowley, however, it is difficult to legislate across the state since each county is different geographically and environmentally. The desires of the public differ, too. For example, some plats want their storm water retention ponds to look like golfing greens while others want theirs to have native vegetation.
“We try to honor local values within the greater context of storm water management,” said Crowley. “What’s important to understand is that we all depend completely on drainage systems to carry on our lives.”
Michigan is one of the few states that elects its drain commissioners.
“It’s not about passing another law,” said Keele, “but about people knowing what the drain commissioner does, and how the office espouses their values. Then, they need to vote for qualified individuals.”
UPDATE: Residents on the Coldwater River will now have to pay for the cleanup that resulted when the contractor cleared trees from the banks. For some, this property tax is more than $1,000; it was levied by Barry County Drain Commissioner Russ Yarger.
The FIRST & 42 Forum: Meet Jason Wiersma
To help our community members make informed choices in the upcoming election, we asked candidates running for important local, state, and national seats to participate in our Forum to help you get to know them better. Today, meet Jason Weirsma.
Running to represent Kalamazoo County as the Kalamazoo County Drain Commissioner, Jason Wiersma has worked directly with the current drain commissioner in his role as the county’s Soil Erosion and Sediment Control Agent for the past three years. As county drain commissioner, Jason plans to “position the office towards proactive management instead of a more reactive approach to drain issues. I will encourage the implementation of modern stormwater techniques and partner with local and state agencies to combat flooding for the health and safety of all Kalamazoo County residents.” If elected into this role, Jason would support economic growth in the Kalamazoo community by encouraging partnerships and seeking grant opportunities. Jason also shared with us that his favorite book is “The Urban Treasure Hunter” by Michael Chaplan, and when it comes to his favorite food, he said there’s nothing better than “anything my wife makes.” Meet Jason Wiersma.
Kalamazoo County Drain Commissioner
DISTRICT POSITION REPRESENTS
WHAT IS YOUR MOTIVATION FOR RUNNING FOR OFFICE?
I am running for Kalamazoo County Drain Commissioner because it is vital to have a candidate with knowledge, experience, integrity, and empathy. I provide these key qualities for this elected position. I have worked for over three years directly under Pat Crowley, Kalamazoo County Drain Commissioner, as the county’s Soil Erosion and Sediment Control (SESC) Agent. I work with homeowners, builders, local municipalities, other agencies such as the Road Commission, and EGLE (Environmental and Great Lakes Energy) in efforts to protect the waters of the state and adjacent properties during construction activities. I provide public education, assist flood mitigation, federal permit inspections, and county drain inspections. I am looking forward to doing even more to serve the residents of Kalamazoo County and meeting the needs of our community.
WHAT ARE YOUR TOP PRIORITIES WITHIN THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF THIS ELECTED OFFICE?
I will provide responsible stewardship for all of Kalamazoo County drainage districts and will position the office towards proactive management instead of a more reactive approach to drain issues. I will encourage the implementation of modern stormwater techniques. I will partner with local and state agencies to combat flooding for the health and safety of all Kalamazoo County residents.
HOW DO YOU PLAN TO ACCOMPLISH THESE GOALS WITHIN THE RESPONSIBILITIES AND RESTRICTIONS OF THE OFFICE?
I will be working with state and local officials and Kalamazoo County residents, providing guidance and addressing public concerns. I will manage this department with integrity and resourcefulness. I will work to develop a program that provides systematic preventative maintenance and rapid response to drain issues. In my current role as the SESC Agent for Kalamazoo County working for the Kalamazoo County Drain Commissioner, I have improved inspection and safety protocols, implemented updated technology to promote efficiency, and fostered open dialogue to develop long-term relationships with these governmental departments, officials, and the residents of Kalamazoo County, and look forward to expanding on this.
HOW DO YOU PLAN TO SUPPORT THE GROWTH OF THE ECONOMY IF ELECTED?
A successful Kalamazoo County Drain Commissioner works with many governmental departments and officials impacting growth in the economy. This office encourages more partnerships, especially in seeking grants. In conjunction with the Kalamazoo County Road Commission on projects and permitting, the office provides vital infrastructure for Kalamazoo County residents. This office works in tandem with the Michigan Department of Environment and Great Lakes Energy (EGLE) at the state level on construction projects and in efforts to protect our state’s natural resources. This office also works directly with homeowners, builders, developers, and local units on construction projects that directly impact economic growth and value-added improvements for the residents of Kalamazoo County.
FAVORITE CAMPAIGN SONGS
U2’s “Beautiful Day” and George Benson’s “Give Me the Night.”
Sci-Fi! “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.”
“The Urban Treasure Hunter” by Michael Chaplan.
Anything my wife makes. She is an amazing cook!
The Primary will be held on August 4. The general Election will be held on November 3. Jason Wiersma is seeking this seat as a Democrat.
Office of Drain Commissioner
Soil Erosion Program
201 West Kalamazoo Avenue, Rm. 107
Kalamazoo, MI 49007
Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control (SESC)
Kalamazoo County Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control Program, established under Act 347 of 1974, as amended, with the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners adopts the Ordinance pursuant to the provisions Part 91 of the Michigan Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, being Act 451 of the Public Acts of 1994, as amended.
On January 11, 2001, Part 91 was significantly amended by Public Act 504 of 2000. Public Act 504 intensified the enforcement process of the program to ensure better compliance with the Act by developers, owners, and contractors, and by making the enforcing agencies more responsible and accountable for providing State-compliant erosion control programs.
The Kalamazoo County Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control Ordinance, amended 2019, is intended to protect the residents of Kalamazoo County and the general public by regulating earth change activities which can injure the environment through erosion and the unnatural accumulation of sediment.
The Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control Agents administer and enforce the Ordinance throughout all of the Kalamazoo County except within the territorial boundaries of a governmental unit that has adopted an Ordinance.
The following Municipalities are their own governing unit:
City of Kalamazoo 269-337-8026
City of Portage 269-329-4412
Kalamazoo County Clerk, Drain Commissioner opt not to seek reelection
KALAMAZOO COUNTY, MI (WKZO AM/FM) — Both County Clerk Tim Snow and Drain Commissioner Pat Crowley said they will not seek re-election this November.
The announcements came as several candidates say they’re considering running for high profile positions in Kalamazoo’s County Government as the filing deadline approaches.
Snow, a republican, has served as clerk since 1997, and was most recently elected in 2016. He previously served as Comstock Township clerk, first being elected at the age of 25.
Kalamazoo County Election Specialist Sarah Joshi has filed campaign finance paperwork to run for that job. Joshi has served as election specialist since 2016.
The democrat Crowley has served as drain commissioner, tasked with water maintenance, since 2008. Now Kalamazoo County’s Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control agent, Jason Weirsma, has filed paperwork to run for the seat in 2020.
Prospective candidates have until April 21st to file campaign paperwork and get their name on the ballot for the county offices.
Commissioner kalamazoo drain
KALAMAZOO, MI -- Both Kalamazoo County’s clerk and its drain commissioner have announced they will be retiring when their current terms end later this year.
County Clerk Tim Snow and Drain Commissioner Pat Crowley both said they will not seek reelection in the 2020 election.
Snow, a Republican, has served as county clerk since 1997. He was most recently reelected to a four-year term in November 2016. Prior to working at the county, Snow served as the Comstock Township Clerk for 12 years.
“The past 23 years of service to the citizens of Kalamazoo County have been a highlight of my life,” Snow said. “I did not expect when I first ran for [Comstock] Township clerk at age 25, that this would be my career for the past 36 years.”
Kalamazoo County Election Specialist Sarah Joshi has filed campaign finance paperwork to run for the clerk seat this year. She has served as the election specialist since 2016. She has not declared a party affiliation and has until the April deadline to do so.
Crowley, a Democrat, has served as drain commissioner since 2008, and was also reelected to her current, four-year term in 2016. She has a Ph.D. in agricultural technology and systems management and a master’s degree in water resources management
The county’s Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control agent, Jason Wiersma, a Democrat, has filed campaign finance paperwork to run as a Democrat for the drain commissioner seat.
“He likes people, people like him, and he is good at finding a path to do the right thing,” Crowley said. “So I’m happy he is running.”
Interested candidates have until April 21 to file paperwork to seek local offices up for election in 2020.
Office of Drain Commissioner
The Drain Commissioner (and Soil Erosion) Office encourages you to submit your plans electronically whenever possible. If you need personal assistance, please call us and, if needed, request an appointment (even last minute) to meet in our offices or in the field. If you come to the County Administration Building, we will be happy to meet you in front and escort you to our office. Call 269-384-8117 for help.
201 West Kalamazoo Avenue
Kalamazoo, Michigan 49007
Jason Wiersma, Drain Commissioner
Zeña Vos, Deputy Drain Commissioner
Elliott Christensen, SESC Agent
Angel Warner, Administrative Drain Specialist
Anyah Preston, Soil Erosion Inspector/Drain Maintenance
Upcoming Public Meetings
City and partners work on response plans as floods are expected to continue
As of June 19th 2018, 7 new United States Geologic Survey wells in Kalamazoo County indicated record high groundwater levels. Last quarter 11 (different ones) of the total 21 wells were at record highs. Many people in Kalamazoo County are continuing to suffer water in their homes and this condition is expected to continue for a few more months. Please hold them in your thoughts.
Kalamazoo County Drain Commissioner
Monday through Friday: 8 a.m. - 4:00 PM by appointment only
We are closed for the following holidays:
|New Years’ Day||January 1|
|Martin Luther King Jr. Day||Third Monday in January|
|President’s Day||Third Monday in February|
|Memorial Day||Last Monday in May|
|Independence Day||July 4|
|Labor Day||First Monday in September|
|General Election Day||First Tuesday after November 1st|
|Veterans Day||November 11|
|Thanksgiving Day||Fourth Thursday in November|
|Day after Thanksgiving Day||Day after Thanksgiving|
|Christmas Eve Day||December 24|
|Christmas Day||December 25|
|New Years’ Eve Day||December 31|
When any holiday above falls on a Sunday, the next following Monday shall be observed as the holiday. When any holiday above falls on a Saturday, the preceding Friday shall be observed as the holiday.
When December 25th falls on a Saturday, causing the observance of the holiday on Friday, December 24th, then Thursday, December 23rd will be the observance day for the December 24th holiday. When December 24th falls on Sunday, the observance day will then be Friday, December 22nd.
Our Mission is to provide for the health, safety and welfare of Kalamazoo County citizens, the protection of surface waters and the environment, and to promote the long-term environmental sustainability of Kalamazoo County by providing storm water management, flood control, soil erosion controls and education.
How to Report Surface Water Pollution
City of Kalamazoo Public Service Week
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