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Editorial: Cass coasting is over as Cleaver debuts tonight

Published 11:25pm Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Thursday, March 10, 2011

This evening at Southwestern Michigan College many Cass County government officials will be meeting for the first time Charles Cleaver, selected by the Board of Commissioners as third county administrator and controller.

Jeff Carmen, Jefferson Township supervisor, was the first, followed for two decades by Terry Proctor, who attended his last meeting in February 2010.

A recurring theme in commissioners’ questioning of five candidates Feb. 12 at the Council on Aging is effectively doing more with less — consolidation, balancing demand for services with declining resources and attracting and retaining employees.

That line of questioning suggests Cass County officials want a change agent to creatively drive collaboration in new directions and to jolt a complacent culture.

Government at all levels needs to be right-sized and made smarter with the kind of changes most other jobs were subjected to years ago, with productivity and efficiency scrutinized along with application of technology.

We already know where Mr. Cleaver stands on change:

“If you’re not improving or learning, you’re coasting, and the only way to coast is downhill.”

Saginaw, where Cleaver was deputy controller for 15 commissioners in the state’s 10th-largest county, eliminated 110 positions in the last nine years and froze pay six of the previous eight years because wages and benefits for 166 positions represent 77 percent of expenses.

“I get a kick out of finding ways to save money,” he said.

Cleaver told Dowagiac Commissioner Clark Cobb, “People will work for less money if you treat them right, treat them with respect and keep them in the communications loop. I know how to let someone go or discipline somebody and still leave them with their self-respect.”

Commissioners apparently responded positively to him ranking “saving money” as his greatest professional achievement.

“One of the governor’s proposals is to reduce public servants’ pay 5 percent for the next three years, or 15 percent, which for us was $2.5 million — exactly half of our state revenue sharing.

“I would take a very active role in merging services. I know you just consolidated the road commission manager. I’ve got some ideas about some more collaborative efforts, maybe grants.

“In Saginaw County, we had a wonderful collaborative effort with law enforcement for an area records management system. We have 56 agencies in nine counties which use our network. They save money and we’re making money. Sens. Levin and Stabenow found out and came to Saginaw along with nine sheriffs because there’s another possibility with the jail management system. The feds gave us $3 million to develop the program. We’re almost ready to bring other people online.”

When Cobb asked what Cleaver sees Cass County facing in the next two, four and six years, he identified “three major issues — money, money and money. That’s the short answer, and it’s very important to keep an eye on the new governor’s intentions because they have to fill a $2 billion hole.”

Of his “very open” leadership style, Cleaver said, “I’m not a micro-manager. I expect department managers to do their jobs and hold them accountable. I expect employees to be what I call ‘Charlie’s human resources CPRs’ — courteous, professional and respectful. There’s no excuse not to be that. I’m there to support department managers. If they need guidance or advice, I’ll be there to encourage them. I have an open door. I have a calming effect on people.”

When it comes to developing consensus with two deeply-divided sides, Cleaver said, “Sometimes you don’t. Democrats and Republicans on many controversial issues vote along party lines — and they know that. Sometimes they vote that way to send a message. My job is not to get in the middle of that, but to provide honest, unbiased answers. Not to take sides.”

Welcome to Cass County, Mr. Cleaver, when you officially start Monday, March 14. With the prolonged search we have been plateaued long enough and are anxious to climb again.

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