GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It’s the race at the bottom of the ballot and perhaps among the least understood elected posts, but in a campaign cycle that has been soaked with drama even the Kent County drain commissioner race is heating up in the waning days before the general election.
Drain commissioner is a title that goes back to the earliest days of Michigan’s statehood. Michigan, a state that before settlement would have been considered two-thirds wetland, could not have become the industrial state it has without drains.
“It’s not just about managing water. There’s an environmental component to this job that is very rarely understood,” said current Kent County Drain Commissioner William Byl, who is retiring.
He previously served on the Kent County Commission and in the state legislature, but he says drain commissioner was the most rewarding.
Two candidates seek to take over for him and in recent weeks, it has become apparent there is a competitive race on. While the yard signs might be overlooked among the clutter popping on lawns as Nov. 8 nears, it was hard to ignore the billboards that were unveiled last week urging voters to choose Ken Yonker for the job.
The most common question Yonker, a Republican, and his Democratic opponent Rachel Hood hear is: What the heck is a drain commissioner? They have starkly different answers to that question, extending even to what it should be called. Hood wants to move from a drain commission office to a “water resource commission office.” Yonker disagrees, saying the change would imply an expansion beyond what the job should be.
A drain commissioner can have a major say in the speed and location of development. The commissioner oversees the more than 500 miles of drains in the county, as well as detention and the management of how water runs off everything from farms to lawns to mall parking lots. The commissioner earns $93,000 per year and has a staff of five.
Yonker is a Caledonia resident and former state representative. He believes the job and its power to assess tax without oversight should be controlled and curtailed and should not drift into the areas overseen by the state Department of Environmental Quality.
“The main focus of the drain commissioner is to make sure that water’s moving,” he said. “We don’t need the drain commission to become another DEQ. Our DEQ does a good job.”
Hood lives near Riverside Park in Grand Rapids, has spent more than a decade with West Michigan Environmental Action Council and is now an environmental consultant. She advocates for evolving and expanding the position to maintain water quality and address the challenges presented by climate change.
“We have more intense and more frequent storms and we have to deal with that or we’re going to be dealing with the consequences of it,” Hood said. “The consequences of it are for more expensive the consequences of dealing with it proactively on the front end.”
Current Drain Commissioner Byl, a Republican who has held the office for a decade, says he knows both candidates and that they both are solid choices. He said the best choice would be a combination of both their points of view.
But voters will only be able to choose one two weeks from Tuesday. Yonker and Hood’s names will be listed under the second-to-last race on the partisan part of the Kent County ballot.
Generally in Kent County, which traditionally leans toward the right, the drain commissioner is chosen in the primary rather than the general election. But this year is unusual. Both candidates are spending more than $40,000 on the campaign, indicating it could be more of a contest than its bottom-of-the-ballot status would infer.