Oakland County puts window salesman on road commission

Blame the cyclists from the 1890s.

Back then, counties weren’t involved in building roads, but farmers were. That was a problem for bicyclists. These roads weren’t well engineered, didn’t drain properly, and were hub deep in mud during the spring.

But the roads were good enough for horses.

And at that time, a popular sentiment was that county government had no role in building and maintaining roads.

Cyclists began the Good Roads movement and one of their first victories in Michigan (thanks to Edward Hines) was an 1893  state law that allowed the creation of county road commissions. These commissions were separate from county government and had enough autonomy so that they could ignore the naysayers in the farming community and improve the roads.

By the 1920s, according to Horatio “Good Roads” Earle, the cyclist who founded MDOT, the debate over the importance of good roads was over. Even the farmers agreed that building good roads was a good investment.

However, the road commissions that were separate from county government remained.

Unified form of government

All but Wayne and Macomb Counties operate on what’s called a “unified form of government” which is defined by state law. This law allows Michigan counties to hire a county manager to oversee departments for planning, economic development, health, environmental protection, parks, libraries, sewage, airports, garbage collection, human services, and more.

See what’s missing? 

By default, counties can’t build and maintain roads. It requires a separate county government which reports to road commissioners. Under state law, road commissioners can be appointed by the county commission or elected.

In Oakland County, three road commissioners are appointed by the county commissioners, one position every couple years. These part-time road commissioners receive a $10,000 salary and full health care benefits.

New road commissioner

Road Commissioner Richard Skaritt’s term expired last month. Six people applied for his position. None were interviewed.

Instead the Oakland County Commission’s Republican caucus decided to appoint Ron Fowkes. Fowkes is not an urban planner nor does he have much transportation background.  He was a window salesman and former Milford Village councilman. And a Republican.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. All three previous appointments were former Republican Oakland County Commissioners.

As the Daily Tribune reported earlier today, the Democatic County Commissioners weren’t pleased.

“It’s always been our position that appointments to the road commission should be based on merit and qualifications, rather than on political paybacks to Republican former elected officials,” [Commissioner Tim] Greimel said Tuesday.

A Free Press article on this topic included this telling quote from Republican Commissioner Shelley Goodman Taub, “At the end of the day, whoever has the power makes the appointments.”

County Commission vote

I attended last night’s county commission meeting and gave public comment (see below.)

The Democratic commissioners also spoke prior to the vote on Fowke’s appointment.

Commissioner Marcia Gershenson decried the obvious cronyism and the process adding, “We have no input on the road programs the commission implements.”

Commissioner Helaine Zack concurred and said it’s difficult to vote for someone if they’ve never had the opportunity to interview them.

Commissioner Craig Covey said he’d like to know a candidate’s positions on Complete Streets, bicycles, and public transit.

Commissioner Tim Greimel said that they are have a responsibility to the Oakland County electorate to appoint the best qualified applicants. And like businesses, they shouldn’t hire commissioners without interviews.

Commissioner Mattie M. Hatchett responded to Taub’s Free Press quote saying that any decision should be based on the best information they have and what’s best for the county — not just based on the majority vote.

Commissioner David Woodward said he felt reforms were needed at the Road Commission and he’d like to know what their plans are for such things as bike lanes.

Despite the comments, the vote fell along partisan lines. The 14 Republican “ayes” made Fawkes the next county road commissioner in Oakland County.

Ron Fawkes

After giving my public comment, Mr. Fawkes introduced himself and said bicyclists would “have an ear” with him on the commission.

He spoke highly about the new sharrows being installed in Milford Village. I reminded him that Road Commission policy doesn’t allow those on Oakland County Roads.

He suggested perhaps that was an MDOT policy. I noted that it wasn’t.

He said that it often comes down to money. I remarked that the city of Detroit is able to find the grants to get it done.

We’ll see. As many of the county commissioners noted from both sides of the aisle, Mr. Fawkes is a nice guy.

Current road Commissioner Eric Wilson also introduced himself and noted that he’s a cyclist too. He strongly encouraged me to bring these issues before the road commission soon. I reminded him that I already had and got no response.

Still, I will attend one of their meetings soon. Maybe now that a little more light and public scrutiny is being shown on the road commission, it might be more responsive.

Public comments

I gave the following comments before the Oakland County Commission on January 5th, 2010.

Hello my name is Todd Scott.

I serve on the Troy Trails committee, Royal Oak non-motorized task force, Ferndale bicycle committee, and have been on the Oakland Trails Advisory Council since its inception. I also work for the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance, however I’m not here representing any of these groups.

I’m here as a resident. I’ve lived in Oakland County for four decades and have been trying to make it bike friendly for two.

I will honestly tell you that Oakland County is not bike friendly. In fact it is not even competitive with other metro regions, not to mention the city of Detroit. In fact, as of this year the city of Detroit has more miles of bike lanes than all of Oakland County combined.

There are many reasons for this, but first and foremost is the Road Commission for Oakland County. They have had an undocumented policy for the past 20 years of not safely accommodating bicycles on their roads. Their policy does not follow best practices as set for by AASHTO, Institute of Transportation Engineers, and the Federal Highway Administration.

Their money and liability excuses for not doing what is safest have been debunked. There is substantial grant funding available to make Oakland County roads bike friendly, but the Road Commission is not applying for it.

I’ve presented this same information to the Road Commissioners and asked what it would take to change their policy.  I was informed by a RCOC employee that my best bet for getting answers is through a Freedom of Information Act request.

And while the recent snow storm response awoke many motorists to issues with the road commission, Oakland County bicyclists have been aware of them for decades.

I am asking you to appoint road commissioners that are willing to abide by the commission’s mission statement of providing safe and convenient roads and of having sensitivity to community concerns.

The mission statement does not say safe and convenient for only those in cars.

We need a road commission that is building Complete Streets – bikeable and walkable streets that help this region retain the Gen Yers and Boomers, while attracting businesses like Google and Quicken.

We need to at least be competitive.

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7 Responses to “Oakland County puts window salesman on road commission”

  1. Andrew Mutch Says:

    Thanks for speaking up Todd.

  2. Dave Hurst Says:

    Thanks for the update and for the well-informed public comments. I look forward to hearing if anything more comes from a second discussion of the Oakland county road commission policies.

  3. Dave Says:


    What are some concise yet clearly written sources on this subject as it pertains at least to Michigan and metro Detroit? I’ve become a little confused trying to read this article. I often find Michigan’s government-related websites to lack seamlessness and other, complementary pieces of information.

  4. MisterG Says:

    Troy trails Comitee?
    Is that still active? I haven’t seen anything posted.

  5. Todd Scott Says:

    The Troy Trails committee hasn’t met in some time. The Troy budget issues have really slowed/stopped work on non-motorized planning in the city. To learn more, you can contact Carol Anderson of the Rec Department, AndersonCK@troymi.gov

  6. Todd Scott Says:


    I’m not sure if what you’re asking for even exists.

    I haven’t seen much written about this outside of Horatio Earle’s autobiography. It includes some history of the Good Roads Movement in Michigan, but it’s not comprehensive.

    Of course there is additional information on the unified form or county government in the state law.

  7. Johnny Says:

    The way the road commissions are formed need to be changed. Oakland County road commission does a horrible service to the public it serves. It turns a deaf ear to the rightful demands of the public to have decent service in taking care of the roads. I live on a dirt road and do they make a mess always 99 percent of the time even after 30 some years here.

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