Why Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers member Jeff Timmer should recuse himself from PA4 repeal challenge

Not all conflicts of interest are created equal

The continuing saga of the desperate attempt to derail putting the repeal of Public Act 4 — Michigan’s Emergency Manager law — on the November ballot continues with a piece published on the Michigan Radio website titled “Ballot box politics: Conflicts of interest for Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers”.

As I wrote about earlier this week, one of the members of the Michigan Board of State Canvassers (BSC), the group that will decide on the challenge to the petitions collected by Stand up for Democracy, is Jeff Timmer. Timmer works for a company that is intimately tied to the effort to defeat the repeal. His company, Sterling Corporation, is one and the same as the group “Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility” that is challenging the 226,000+ signatures because they font size of the heading is 12 rather than 14. Note that the printer’s affidavit certifies that the font is the correct size.

Like I said: desperate.

At any rate, the Michigan Radio piece suggests that conflicts of interest like this are not uncommon. In fact, because the members of the bipartisan panel — two Republicans and two Democrats — are chosen by their respective parties, it’s almost guaranteed that they will be connected to ballot proposals and petition drives in some for or another on occasion:

The Board of State Canvassers is very partisan – by design. The state Republican and Democratic parties each get to nominate people to be on the panel. The governor has to choose from the nominees, two from each party. It takes the votes of at least three of the four to get anything done. Julie Matuzak is a Democrat who chairs the board.

“It is intended that those four people represent the world view of their party,” said Matuzak. “They are partisan activists. That’s the whole point of being on here. What makes the system fair is it takes three votes on the board of canvassers to do anything.”

The piece goes on to talk about the panel’s vote to approve the petition for the Protect Our Jobs initiative, an effort to put protections for collective bargaining into the Michigan constitution:

One of the votes to allow the Protect Our Jobs petition drive to go forward was Matuzak’s. But she never disclosed that part of her regular, full-time job is to get that very question on the ballot. Matuzak is the political coordinator for the American Federation of Teachers of Michigan. And her job includes getting A-F-T members to sign and circulate the petitions. But Matuzak says she sees no problem with that.

You can be sure that the argument that is going to be made is that if Matuzak didn’t recuse herself then Timmer shouldn’t have to either. For most things, I might even agree with you. But deciding whether or not to throw out nearly a quarter of a million petition signatures due to a trivial and, perhaps, concocted font size issue is far more serious and very political in nature. Timmmer’s connections to the group challenging the petitions is more than just having them as “a client” as the Michigan Radio piece almost comically describes them. They share an office. They share a phone number. The people that work there are the same. They are the same group.

It literally defines “conflict of interest”.

For those that think that Matuzak should have recused herself when voting on the Protect Our Jobs petition, consider two things. First, the approval of the Protect Our Jobs petition was for the form of the petition and clarity of the language only. Truly a technical decision. In fact, the minutes from the March meeting (pdf) where this was done spell this out:

A motion was entered for the Board of State Canvassers to approve the initiative petition form submitted by Protect Our Jobs with the understanding that the Board’s approval does not extend to 1) the substance of the summary of the proposal which appears on petition; 2) the substance of the summary of the proposal which appears on the signature side of the petition; or 3) the manner in which the proposal language is affixed to the petition.

In other words, this was a pretty nonpolitical decision. This is proven by the second point worth noting: the vote was unanimous.

It does appear that whether or not Timmer recuses himself may be irrelevant. Unless one of the Democrats on the Board votes to throw out Stand Up For Democracy’s petitions, they won’t have the three votes necessary to uphold the challenge and status quo will prevail. However, it would be nice if we could maintain some semblance of transparency and integrity in our elections, wouldn’t it? Is that too much to ask?

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