Rick Snyder took a few hits during his eight years as Michigan governor, but he was a big success in one area that virtually nobody has paid any attention to — making appointments.
That’s no mean achievement; at least two of his antecedents flunked the test.
In his two terms, Snyder and his appointment directors — initially Norm Saari, followed by Brian Breslin and Kristin Beltzer — named a whopping 5,501 members to various state boards and commissions. The most recent was Nancy Schlichting, a former Henry Ford Health Systems CEO, to fill a vacancy on the MSU Board of Trustees just last week.
But that’s not all. As a hallmark of his mantra “Relentless Positive Action” (RPA), Snyder also named 126 men and women to various judgeships, and during his tenure he did this as well:
- Wiped out a bulging backlog of vacancies that had accumulated during the tenure of his predecessor, Jennifer Granholm, and kept pace with expiring terms on thousands of seats on state boards, commissions, councils and task forces, many of them requiring advice and consent from the state Senate. None of Snyder’s appointees were rejected by lawmakers, although there were a couple of hiccups in the recent lame duck session’s final weeks involving the new Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority.
- Reconstructed the historical file on gubernatorial appointments destroyed by Granholm’s staff on its way out the door in December, 2010.
- Filled 78 vacancies that Democrat Granholm tried and failed to get approved by the Republican-controlled Senate, many for terms that didn’t begin until after she had left office. Granholm left vacant about 50 other seats with expiration dates in 2010; Snyder filled those, too. In toto, Snyder filled all but about 60 slots that represent only about 3% of all state boards and commissions.
- Avoided the embarrassment of having to withdraw appointments that would have constituted a conflict of interest or drawn opposition from the Senate. Granholm suffered scores of those; so did former Gov. James Blanchard.
- Implemented a two-term rule for serving (eight years maximum), and filled more than 98% of the approximately 2,300 total seats with his own appointees.
By contrast, Granholm during her two terms as governor never got a grip on state government. Nothing proved it more than her inability to handle the appointments process.
Upon assuming office in 2003, Granholm found herself hampered by the actions of her predecessors — John Engler (now interim president of MSU) and, indirectly, Blanchard, whose style of governance Engler was determined to counter and reverse.
From the get-go, Granholm never made any headway in putting her own stamp on the state’s myriad boards and commissions by making timely appointments to various panels. In 2005, when the publisher of The Ballenger Report first wrote about this subject, there were 434 openings unfilled by Granholm. That number grew to 487 by 2007 and to 496 by the middle of 2009 — 116 of them requiring advice and consent from the state Senate. After that, Granholm tried to wipe out much of her backlog simply by axing more than two dozen panels via executive edict. If she hadn’t — and hadn’t filled the vacancies on boards, councils and commissions she thought did not need to exist — her deficit would have ballooned to nearly 700 vacancies.
In early 2010, Granholm made unnecessary trouble for herself when she tried to sneak past the Senate 14 appointments to university governing boards for terms beginning after her successor (who turned out to be Snyder) would take office. The Senate, repelled by the governor’s chutzpah, rejected them.
By contrast, few lame duck appointments were attempted by Engler, Blanchard, or their predecessors — William G. Milliken and George Romney — but of those that were, almost all occurred during the two-month window between the November general election and the end of the governors’ terms, long after a state budget and other important state business had been enacted.
In sum, Granholm’s record as an “appointer” was deplorable, although maybe only half as bad as Blanchard’s. Even if Granholm had wanted to get on top of appointments process quickly, at the outset of her tenure, she discovered she was unable to fill many of the top administrative posts and key panels with appointees of her own choosing. That’s because Engler had used the power of his office to the fullest extent possible — some would say ruthlessly — to fill every executive branch job as far into Granholm’s tenure as he could before he left office on Jan. 1, 2003.
A good case could be made Engler’s appointments policy was based at least in part on what he inherited from Blanchard, whose bid for a third term Engler derailed in 1990.
Whether by accident or design, Blanchard was responsible for the most deeply-flawed appointments process in Michigan history, i.e., it fomented unprecedented confusion in executive branch agencies over an eight-year period (from 1983-1991).
From top policy-making commissions such as, say, Agriculture and Corrections to obscure panels like the Board of Horology (watchmaking), governance under Blanchard was hampered by the drift and delay of an old-fashioned spoils system, based on hand-written memos rather than a high-tech selection process employed in other major industrial states.
For example, at one point while Blanchard was governor there were a record 121 terms on 35 different regulatory boards, task forces, councils, committees and commissions that had expired — for a cumulative backlog of more than 87 years. The term of one nursing board member went unfilled for four years. Terms of all five members of the Administrative Committee on Public Accountancy ran out on Nov. 22, 1984 — and they weren’t replaced for three years. None of the eight members of the Dental Specialty Task Force were appointed or reappointed by Blanchard between Feb. 8, 1984, and 1988.
To this day, it is debated whether Blanchard’s modus operandi was the result of sloth, or of deliberate strategy. Armed with an opinion from an assistant attorney general that it was legal for board members to continue to function with full powers past the ends of their appointed terms (no court has ever ruled to the contrary), Blanchard (and later Granholm) thought they were strengthening their hands vis a vis the bureaucracy and in their struggle with the executive branch’s historic adversary, the Legislature, by allowing terms to expire and rarely filling them with new appointees.
Whatever advantages Blanchard thought he gained while he was in office, the strategy obviously backfired in 1990 when Engler beat him.
Back in 1991, we asked Colleen Pero, then Engler’s appointments chief, whether the appointments process was likely to change from what it had been under Blanchard. In part, here’s what she said:
“Governor Blanchard evidently wanted these people in effect serving at his pleasure. What that does, unfortunately, is take away the independence of the commissions. We now face a thousand vacancies. We will try to fill all positions as they come open …”
None of the above, by the way, relates necessarily to the filling of judicial vacancies, which doesn’t require Senate confirmation. Even there, Granholm was notorious for delaying such appointments for curiously lengthy periods. For example, Leelanau County waited nearly two years for her to fill a vacancy on its probate bench. Maybe that was the governor’s way of trying to get rid of what she perceived as unnecessary judgeships, much as she jettisoned executive branch boards and commissions with Executive Orders. If so, it probably would have been smarter to proceed, as Snyder has, by getting the Legislature to approve the elimination of 45 judgeships by statute (not including Leelanau County, by the way).