From The Oakland Press:
Republican Ruth Johnson won election as Oakland County clerk in 2004 and in 2008 in part by campaigning on a platform of transparency and accountability in government.
She campaigned on similar themes in her successful run for Michigan secretary of state in the Nov. 2 election and she takes her new office Jan. 1.
That means her position as county clerk is vacant and someone needs to be picked to fill the remaining two years of her term.
Selecting a new clerk is done by the Oakland County Circuit Court judges, and Chief Judge Nanci Grant has collected applications from 12 people who met the Nov. 19 application deadline.
Grant has said the applications will be reviewed and the new clerk selected by a vote of the 19 circuit judges. Grant has said the goal is to have a new clerk in place by mid-December so the office isn’t left vacant for a period of time, and to give the newly appointed clerk time to get acclimated to the new office.
Judge Grant shouldn’t move quite so quickly.
We think the circuit bench needs to take its time picking a replacement clerk, especially in the interests of transparency and accountability, and in a manner that is fully open to the public.
It’s a big job that pays $138,999 annually. The county clerk is the county’s chief elections officer and also responsible for maintaining property and court records in a county of 1.2 million people.
The responsibilities alone require that the candidates seeking to replace Johnson are thoroughly reviewed and interviewed by the circuit court bench before a selection is made.
Also, there is nothing in the state Constitution that requires the bench to fill the vacancy immediately, or at all.
The only part of the state Constitution that addresses filling the vacancy is one permissive line in Article 6, Section 14 that reads, “The judges of the circuit court may fill a vacancy in an elective office of county clerk or prosecuting attorney within their respective jurisdictions.”
And that’s it. There’s no required timelines to meet and no requirement to fill the position immediately.
In addition, there is an able elections director and a deputy clerk, so there is no reason to believe the office’s operations will grind to a halt if the clerk’s position is vacant for awhile during a thorough selection process.
Johnson won the seat twice by making her case to the county’s registered voters in an open campaign, not to the 19 judges who occupy the circuit court bench and who will vote in apparent secrecy on a replacement.
We’re not suggesting the Oakland County circuit bench isn’t capable of making an unbiased, fair, impartial selection of the best qualified candidate for the job.
But in the absence of an open and public selection process, we also can’t defend any replacement as the most qualified and selected in a fair and impartial manner.
In the interests of accountability and transparency, we suggest the candidates for the job be vetted in a public forum.
The judges should at least conduct their voting in a public forum with an explanation by each why they picked who they did.
Transparency and accountability demand at least that much.
And Oakland County voters deserve it, too.
Former President John F. Kennedy said, “The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society ...”