When Kent County Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish addressed the Grand Rapids Rotary Club in August, she joked that it was easy for the commission’s female caucus to meet. All she had to do was find Commissioner Carol Hennessey and an available hallway.
Well, that situation is about to change, as voters put Candace Chivis and Shana Shroll into office last week.
“The women’s caucus has now doubled, as it goes from two to four. And in addition to that, we also added a woman of color. So I think we’ve helped to diversify the board,” she said.
Over the course of Parrish’s career in working with nonprofit organizations, she said she noticed that homogenous boards often were limited in their ideas on how to tackle issues while boards that were more diversified offered a greater depth of ideas. And for Parrish, diversity is more than race. She feels age also plays a key role in helping to broaden the decision-making process, and some of the newly elected commissioners, like Chivis and Shroll, will make the commission a tad younger in January.
“So that gives us some of that youthful exuberance and ‘change the world’ kind of thing and probably some different solutions to what the rest of the board might come up with. So I see it as a good sign all the way around, just for our overall diversity, so we can have a larger variety of responses to solutions for problems,” said Parrish.
Parrish said the county is moving down a path that will lead to more services being consolidated with cities and townships, and the overall cost of local government being reduced. Another path she said the county has taken is cutting expenditures. Parrish felt it was remarkable that the county’s proposed 2011 general fund budget, which will be adopted in a few weeks, is structurally balanced and contains less spending than this year’s budget.
“But at the same time, being able to continue with the prevention initiatives and some other things, will this board keep doing that? Because we’re bringing on some older leadership that were already sort of on that path, I think they will certainly be on board with that,” she said of Jack Boelema, Harold Mast and Dan Koorndyk, who lost their seats in 2008 but won last week.
“I think that the younger members that are brand new come on as a reflection of the times, partly. They’re saying government needs to stay within its means. They’re saying that we need to look at everything. I think they come in with a nothing-is-sacred kind of view, which I came in with in 2006. So they don’t have that same sort of attachment to things. I think that is going to be refreshing, especially with four of them coming on,” she said of newcomers Chivis, Shroll, Jim Saafeld and Michael Wawee.
“So with all of that considered, I think we will stay on the same path.”
Republicans grew their margin on the board by four; GOPers will hold 15 of the 19 seats starting in January. Three new Republicans and three returning party members won elections last week, while nine were re-elected. Three Democrats lost seats, three won re-election, one ran for state office and had his seat go to a Republican, and one Democratic seat stayed in the party but with a new member.
Parrish said party affiliation hasn’t broken up the desire to get things done at the county, as governance has topped politics over the last two years. At the same time, she acknowledged there are a few issues that currently separate the parties. The biggest one right now is that more Democrats than Republicans want to spend more dollars from the operating budget’s reserve account to prevent worker layoffs.
“That’s a clear difference between the Democrats and Republicans. But outside of that, everything else is pretty much that we see things the same way. But now, as we’re going into a situation where it’s 15 to 4, I hope that it doesn’t become more partisan,” she said.
“We all represent 30,000 people. I always honor that and you can’t ever just completely discount that or that whole district. I don’t think that’s fair. So I don’t have any intention, if I’m re-elected as chair, to marginalize the four (Democrats) that we have. We have too much work to do for 15 (Republicans) to do all the work. … I’m hoping we don’t go to an environment where politics will rule the day.”
Parrish was the only commissioner who ran unopposed last week and she plans to seek another year as commission chairwoman. “If my colleagues will have me, I’d like to continue to be chair,” she said. A leadership vote will be taken in early January.
Last week commissioners agreed to a new two-year labor agreement with the Kent County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Association, which represents 32 prosecutors. The contract includes pay hikes of 1.25 percent for 2011 and 2012. It also raises the attorneys’ cost for dental coverage from $2,200 to $2,300 in 2011 and increases their contributions to the pension plan from 6.5 percent to 7.5 percent beginning in 2012. The total cost to the county for wages and benefits for both years comes to $255,059.