Berrien County commissioners asked to host more night meetings

Published 2:24 pm Thursday, January 5, 2023

ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County Commissioners began 2023 by holding their organizational meeting with the election of officers and committee assignments. Commissioners also heard from a county resident who asked the board to hold more night meetings. 

County Clerk Sharon Tyler called the meeting to order at the Berrien County Administration Center in St. Joseph and supervised the election of the board chairman. She also reminded commissioners of the changes that will be coming to the county board in 2024. 

Legislation signed into law by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2021 changes the length of county commissioners’ terms from two to four years. That change takes effect with the 2024 election cycle. Commissioners elected last November still have two year terms. 

Tyler noted that it’s still unclear what effect that change in commissioner terms will have on other county board business such as how the board chairman and board vice-chairman terms will be. Currently, the board chairman is elected to a two year term at the start of each new term and the vice-chairman is elected to a one year term each year. 

Mac Elliott was again elected to the board chairman post, a post he has held for the last four years. Elliott represents the 10th district on the board which covers the Buchanan area.  

Elliott also served as board chairman for two years more than 30 years ago, from 1991-92. He was first elected to the board in 1984 and served through 1994. He then became the county’s corporate counsel for 15 from 1995 through 2010 when he was again elected to the county board. 

Teri Freehling was re-elected to the vice-chairman post. She represents the 8th district covering Baroda and Berrien Springs. She has been on the county board since 2015 when she was appointed to fill the vacancy left by the death of Neal Nitz. She has been elected to four terms since then. 

After his election to the chairman post, Elliott announced committee and other assignments. He said the committee chairmen will remain the same for the administration, finance and personnel and human services committee with committee membership also remaining the same for the most part. 

Jim Curran remains the chairman the administration committee, Mamie Yarbrough the chairman of the finance committee and Robert Harrison the chairman of the personnel and human services committee. 

Elliott did make two changes due to the election of two new county commissioners. Alex Ott and Chokwe Pitchford were newly elected to the board in November, representing Harbor Country and Benton Township respectively. 

Ott will be on the administration committee and Pitchford on the personnel and human services committee. Returning commissioner Rayonte Bell was moved from personnel and human services to finance. 

Administration committee members are Curran, Dave Vollrath, Julie Wuerfel and Alex Ott. Vollrath is the vice-chairman. 

Finance committee members are Yarbrough, Jon Hinkelman, Freehling and Bell. Hinkelman is the vice-chairman. 

Personnel and human services committee members are Harrison, Michael Majerek and Pitchford. Majerek is the vice-chairman. 

Elliott also named Curran to be sergeant-at-arms, Freehling to be the parliamentarian and Yarbrough to be the chaplain. All three have held those posts previously. 

Elliott noted that the county board’s bylaws will be approved at next week’s meeting so that Curran and Freehling can be in attendance. The bylaws have been revised in recent months, including changing the name of the “committee on committees” to the “executive committee.” 

An interim meeting calendar was approved with the final version to be set in coming weeks. The county board traditionally has night meetings once a month from May through September at locations around the county. 

The county board meeting schedule was the topic of public comments made by St. Joseph resident Melissa Clapper. She encouraged commissioners to extend the number of night meetings they hold during the year, saying they always have a good turnout of the public.  

She suggested that the board add at least one night meeting at the Administration Center in St. Joseph and add a committee of the whole meeting to one of the night meetings scheduled. 

“When I first started attending meetings, I didn’t realize at first that there were committee of the whole and committee meetings being held too,” she said. “People don’t understand all the work you do … In order to attend meetings now, you have to be retired or have an understanding boss.” 

Elliott paid tribute to a longtime county resident who has regularly commented at board meetings. He noted that Tony Benhart of Sodus died Jan. 2.

“His absence is noted and missed,” he said. Benhart, 72, was a native of Three Oaks.