Almost Entire County Commission Overthrown After Spending Splurge

$9 million 'dark sky preserve' bridge-to-nowhere too far for Emmet County

Editor's note: This story was changed to include comments from Commissioner Bert Notestine after publication.

While primary elections for local offices rarely garner much attention, the results of the August election were dramatic for one county in northern lower Michigan. Of seven members of the current county commission, only one will be on the fall ballot.

“I did not anticipate such a dramatic and historic turnover on the Emmet County board,” said Commissioner Charlie MacInnis, who ran unopposed in the primary. “The community clearly didn’t support the massive spending projects that were undertaken without adequate planning or voter approval.” Four of the seven incumbents lost primary contests while another two did not seek re-election.

Last year, county commissioners built a $1.7 million substation for emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and planned to break ground on a $9 million “dark sky” observatory. MacInnis criticized both decisions.

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Nancy Sarowski, chairperson of the Emmet County Republican Party, pointed to MacInnis’ commentaries written in local newspapers to explain the election results. The commentaries gave details on county projects that the commissioner got through the Freedom of Information Act.

“Many people, at first, thought he was exaggerating: no contracts, except an hourly rate, no scope of project, no budget, no performance bonds and the like. When the sitting commissioners failed to rebut Charlie, the public began to pay attention,” she said.

Larry Cassidy is one of the four incumbents who lost.

“I stand behind what we had done,” he said. “I think we did a phenomenal job at the county. We’re the strongest financially in the state and we have some great projects but 69 percent of the people wanted a change and I’m OK with that.”

Two-term Commissioner Bert Notestine says he wasn’t surprised by his defeat.

“The fact that the local paper was very much against the incumbent board members had a tremendous impact on the results,” said Notestine. He said the basis for all the commissioners’ decisions was solid and believes the projects will pay off for the county in the long run.

Last year, MacInnis took Michigan Capitol Confidential on a tour of the projects, which was included in a video.

His fellow commissioners claimed he had no authorization to invite a video producer into the new ambulance substation, which was about to open.

The Emmet County Republican Party began a campaign to recruit candidates to challenge sitting commissioners. Sarowski said that MacInnis impressed a number of people and motivated them to seek office. She and MacInnis brought the candidates up to speed on the issues and helped them campaign.

“Although all the nominees ran their own individual campaigns, I am confident that they are united in their desire to bring openness and accountability to county government,” said MacInnis.

Emmet County is Republican, with 75 percent of the votes in the August primary cast on the Republican side. No Democrats ran in the primary election, and most of the winners from the August primary will be unopposed in November. Two independents will face off in one district.

Sarowski says many people have told her the election gave them hope.

“Hope that wrongs can be righted. Hope that good people can be elected. Hope that liberally (bent) newspapers can do good reporting. Hope that our tax money can be allocated responsibly,” said Sarowski.