Southfield ballot question pits democracy against technocracy

Proposals to amend city charter stem from a belief that democracy is too messy. It isn’t.

In November, voters in the Oakland County community of Southfield will face two ballot questions that define our time: Should the city clerk and city treasurer positions, respectively, remain elected, or be appointed?

Which is to say: Should the people of Southfield choose their clerk and treasurer, or should the city administrator choose?

“Whenever I’m in doubt, I prefer elected rulers over unelected ones,” Mackinac Center President Joseph G. Lehman told CapCon. “At any level of government.”

“Of the 276 other Michigan cities with charters,” explains the city’s fact sheet on the ballot proposals, “only 42 elect these positions with the remaining 234 being appointed.”

Bringing Southfield in line with the herd means departing from local tradition.

Under the current system, the people choose. But they only get to choose on Election Day. If performance dips or behavior is egregious, voters can wait another four years to replace the person, push for a recall, or ask Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to remove them. 

Their power comes from the people, not the mayor’s office. Outside of Election Day, only the governor or a voter recall can remove them from office.

That Southfield has a city administrator, in addition to an elected mayor, means the city has already moved in the direction of technocracy. That is, rule by the super-competent, preferably a level removed from the people. This carries an assumption that city administrators can do what mayors cannot. And that assumption is faulty.

The ballot proposals stem from a belief that democracy is too messy.

Of course Michigan cities and counties have elected bad clerks and treasurers before. Just as city councils have hired bad city administrators, and those city administrators have hired bad clerks and treasurers before.

People are people are people. That means they make mistakes. That means they can mislead and be misled. Whether elected or appointed, it’s not unheard of for someone to present a competent face to land a job, then fall apart when it’s time to work.

There is no scenario where the people of Southfield can be assured of the future. But there’s only one scenario where the people get to choose their leaders.

James David Dickson is managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. Email him at

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.