Detroit Regional Chamber > Advocacy > Dec. 21, 2023 | This Week in Government: Witjes Resigns

Dec. 21, 2023 | This Week in Government: Witjes Resigns

December 21, 2023
Detroit Regional Chamber Presents This Week in Government, powered by Gongwer, Michigan's home for Policy and Politics news since 1906

Each week, the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Government Relations team, in partnership with Gongwer, provides members with a collection of timely updates from both local and state governments. Stay in the know on the latest legislation, policy priorities, and more.

Redistricting: Witjes Called For Szetela’s Removal Before Resignation

Dustin Witjes, a member of the state’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, resigned Tuesday following calls for him to leave his post because he was living and working out of state, sources told Gongwer News Service on Wednesday.

His resignation also came with a call to remove fellow Commissioner Rebecca Szetela, who has been a source of frustration for some commission members as she has raised several concerns about residency conflicts of interest and sided with the plaintiffs during a bench trial in Agee v. Benson – a lawsuit seeking a redraw of challenged districts due to alleged U.S. Voting Rights Act violations.

Witjes was the commission’s chair at one time. He was one of the group’s original members, chosen by random drawing at the outset of the commission’s life cycle. His departure will trigger another random drawing to replace him from the Department of State’s applicant pool. His replacement likely would be unfamiliar with the intricacies of the group’s adopted maps for the House, Senate, and U.S. House of Representatives adopted in late 2021.

That could pose a setback if the three-judge panel in Agee sides with the plaintiffs and calls the commission back to the drawing board.

ICRC Executive Director Edward Woods III confirmed with Gongwer on Wednesday that Witjes had resigned. A statement later issued by commission Chair Cynthia Orton reaffirmed sources who said Witjes was out.

“On behalf of the commission, we appreciate and respect the engagement and insights provided by Commissioner Dustin Witjes to create fair maps through citizen input,” Orton said. “In serving Michigan’s citizens admirably, he won the respect of his fellow commissioners in serving as the MICRC chairperson and vice chairperson. We will miss his wit and wisdom.”

A news release issued Wednesday from the Department of State said it plans to hold a random drawing for a Democratic Party-affiliated applicant on Jan. 3, 2024. A copy of his resignation letter was made available on the commission’s website under meeting materials for December.

“The opportunity to contribute to the democratic process by ensuring fair representation for the people of Michigan has been a source of immense pride,” Witjes wrote. “I believe that our collective efforts laid the foundation for a more just and equitable electoral landscape, and I am grateful for the trust placed in me by the citizens of Michigan.”

Witjes’ departure was swift but not without controversy.

Earlier this month, Szetela questioned whether Witjes was able to continue serving on the commission since he moved to Illinois for work. The commission tried to adjourn its Dec. 14 meeting, a motion made by Commissioner Anthony Eid, but Szetela protested, calling a point of order to discuss her residency concerns regarding Witjes and Commissioner Doug Clark, who is seeking cancer treatment in California. Witjes no longer resides in Michigan, but Clark said he still has a home in Michigan.

Rep. Ann Bollin (R-Brighton) shared similar concerns in a letter to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson on Dec. 18. She asked Benson to weigh in on the legality of Clark and Witjes serving on the commission while they lived out of state (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Dec. 18, 2023).

Witjes preempted potential additional calls for his resignation by deciding to bow out. He addressed the residency concerns in his resignation letter.

“The decision to move to Illinois to start a new career path was not made lightly. It was originally going to be a temporary move to gain experience while ultimately returning to Michigan. However, life often has other plans,” he wrote. “After a lot of thought, I have decided to make this a permanent career move. A decision which was difficult to make as I, in fact, have left the protective bubble and embrace of friends and family. I have thus officially registered to vote in the state of Illinois, which necessitates my resignation from the MICRC as I am no longer a registered and eligible voter in Michigan. A requirement set forth in the state Constitution.”

The commission said it was formally notified of his departure on Wednesday. Bollin also said Wednesday that Witjes’ resignation was “long overdue.”

“His prolonged absence from Michigan while collecting pay as a member of the redistricting commission is unacceptable. This situation has exemplified a lack of accountability and a disregard for the responsibilities tied to this crucial role,” Bollin said in a statement. “Living outside the state inherently disconnects individuals from the communities they are supposed to represent. It removes them from the direct consequences of the decisions they make as commissioners. This kind of detachment undermines the integrity of the entire redistricting process and erodes public trust.”

Witjes’ residency was just one recent sore spot among commissioners.

Republican commissioners Rhonda Lange and Erin Wagner were critical of the commission’s work and continued existence, including its decision to stay afloat and keep paying itself using taxpayer funds while various court cases were pending.

Szetela later raised conflict of interest concerns against Eid for his short-lived employment with a liberal-leaning advocacy group that lobbied for maps before the commission during various public input sessions. That led to an investigation that absolved Eid of any wrongdoing, but Eid ultimately resigned from his position with Michigan Voices. He also left a position with Asia & Pacific Island American Vote prior to the kerfuffle over the Michigan Voices gig, but not because of commission scrutiny. APIA Vote was a litigant in a lawsuit against the commission at the time.

Eid became a target of Szetela again this week as she and Lange filed paperwork to have him removed and his seat declared vacant. Szetela and Lange alleged Eid drew districts to help his acquaintances gain elected office – an allegation the commissioner vehemently denied. Eid’s removal would ultimately be a commission decision, requiring 10 commissioners to vote for his removal at an upcoming meeting (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Dec. 18, 2023).

COMPLAINT CLAIMS SZETELA IS SABOTAGING ICRC: Witjes, before his departure, also filed paperwork to remove Szetela and have her seat declared vacant, accusing her of undermining the commission since the maps were adopted – moves he said amounted to sabotage.

A copy of the letter requesting Szetela’s seat be declared vacant was provided to Gongwer News Service. A public copy of the letter won’t become available until it is formally before the commission at an upcoming meeting. That said, it is unclear if the letter would be considered valid since Witjes has now resigned. The letter sent to Benson is undated, so it is unclear if it was forwarded to the department before or after the commission accepted his resignation. Sources who spoke to Gongwer were also unsure if the letter would be considered a valid request.

Notwithstanding, Witjes wrote that the commission has consistently emphasized speaking with one voice in its public statements and litigation as it tried to build a united front against challenges. Witjes said Szetela had bucked that expectation on several occasions, specifically as it relates to the ongoing Agee litigation.

“Regrettably, it has come to my attention that Commissioner Szetela, through sworn testimony, actively collaborated with opposing counsel, undermining the collective will of the commission,” Witjes wrote. “Her engagement extended beyond mere communication, involving the provision of information in person, actions that should have been directed through our legal counsel rather than independently pursued. Commissioner Szetela, through an attorney, was not the commission’s legal representative and proper protocol would have dictated working directly through our counsel. Her actions would have been ill-advised. It has also become apparent that Commissioner Szetela continues to work with plaintiffs through affidavits.”

Witjes provided two exhibits as alleged evidence for his claims. He also said the “overt acts” of Szetela could “only be described as sabotage.”

“The commission had retained the services of Baker Hostetler and Fink Bressack, two law firms, to assist in defending our legally drawn district maps for the state of Michigan. At no point did the commission authorize or vote to permit any commissioner to work directly with opposing counsel,” Witjes wrote. “Commissioner Szetela’s actions ran counter to the collective will of the commission, creating undue challenges for our legal team in defending our maps.”

Witjes also highlighted that Szetela was among those who dissented, “either in part or in whole, with the final approved maps, suggesting that her actions may have been motivated by personal disagreement rather than a commitment to the commission’s objectives.”

“It is unprecedented for a named defendant in a case to actively collaborate with plaintiffs in a civil action against the will of the public body to which the defendant belongs,” he wrote. “This conduct constitutes ‘neglect of duty, gross misconduct in office, or inability to discharge the duties of office’; grounds for removal according to Article IV, Section 6, Sub-section 3 of the Michigan Constitution. This commission is a commission of 13, not a commission of one. Such acts of defiance against the will of the commission contradict our core principles.”

Szetela, in an interview with Gongwer, said the discussion about Witjes’ residency was ongoing and that his resignation sped up that process.

As for the letter seeking her removal, Szetela sent an email to Orton and Benson after she was notified, objecting to its claims and urging the state not to accept the letter as valid. A copy of the email was provided to Gongwer.

“Mr. Witjes vacated his office as a commissioner on or before Dec. 14. As a private citizen and a non-member of the commission, Mr. Witjes has no authority to submit a notice pertaining to any commissioner on the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission,” Szetela wrote. “I brought the matter of Mr. Witjes’ residency to the attention of the Department of State of and the commission (on) Dec. 8. On Dec. 14, 2022, during a public meeting of the commission, the commission’s counsel, Nate Fink, acknowledged that Mr. Witjes relocated to Illinois in approximately October of 2022 and has resided there ever since. In 2022, Mr. Witjes canceled his Michigan driver’s license and registered for an Illinois driver’s license.”

Szetela wrote those factors should invalidate Witjes’ request and asked the state to disregard the notice.

In an interview, Szetela called Witjes’ actions “retaliatory” and “childish.”

“It’s clearly retaliatory, I don’t think there’s any question about that, and it’s, frankly, a violation of the Michigan Whistleblower Protection Act,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any question about that either. … He’s just being childish on the way out the door.”

As she said in her email to Benson and Orton, Szetela told Gongwer that she doesn’t believe the call for her ouster should be discussed at a future meeting because Witjes didn’t have standing to bring those claims.

That said, Woods told Gongwer that the Witjes filing and Szetela’s call to remove Eid will be discussed at the next meeting. He was still working on scheduling a date. Woods also requested a legal opinion from the commission’s legal counsel on Wednesday morning, seeking their advice and to help address concerns considered at the meeting.

Report: To Lead in EVs, State Must Be Greener, Have Better Infrastructure

The Michigan Council on Future Mobility and Electrification outlined the state’s biggest mobility challenges this decade and recommended pushing Michigan forward as a leader in mobility and electrification in its 2023 report.

The council found the state needs to focus on being greener and improving its infrastructure to lead in electrification.

“While our work is ongoing, collaboration is paramount to our success,” said Justine Johnson, the state’s chief mobility officer and head of the Michigan Office of Future Mobility and Electrification, in a statement. “The council is committed to working together to identify opportunities for a holistic approach to mobility and clean technologies in Michigan. Its commitment to addressing challenges with an open mind and finding resolutions drives Michigan toward a cleaner, more sustainable, and economically vibrant future.”

Whitmer created the council in 2020 to ensure Michigan continues to be a leader in future mobility and electrification. The council brings together stakeholders from the government, public and private sectors, and research institutions to address the challenges presented by the evolving mobility landscape.

Some of the most pressing challenges for Michigan during the next decade are the competition for mobility jobs, new research and development, and risk capital investment. The state also faces the challenge of transitioning its workforce from traditional internal combustion engines skillsets to emerging automated vehicles and electric vehicle skillsets. Michigan’s infrastructure and grid also need to transition from serving internal combustion engines to electric and automated vehicles.

Other challenges include ensuring that the state regulatory environments keep pace with domestic and global markets. The report also says that Michigan should decarbonize the transportation sector to fight climate change.

This year, the council put forward recommendations centering around six key areas. Those include electric vehicle charging infrastructure and incentives for low- and zero-emission vehicles, hydrogen fuel incentives, roadway and intersection safety, intelligent transportation systems assets and communication networking mapping, and a state investment fund for mobility-related startups.

The council recommended growing employment in mobility and automotive-focused sectors, with a target of 20,000 new jobs by 2026, while increasing the median wage of mobility sector jobs. The state should aim to add 7,000 workers with mobility credentials by 2030 and increase diversity in the workforce. The report also said Michigan must ensure it supports at least 170,000 automotive and parts manufacturing sector jobs through 2030.

The state should focus on safer, greener and more accessible transportation infrastructure, the report said. The council recommended deploying 100,000 EV chargers by 2030 and maintaining at least 80% of EV charging off-peak to minimize impacts to the grid. The report recommended the state provide better access to mobility-as-a-service options across Michigan’s 77 transit agencies by 2025. Further, the report said Michigan should reduce congestion and traffic crash rates statewide by 2026.

“The recommendations in this year’s report underscore the state’s commitment to cleaner forms of mobility and emphasize the pivotal role of strategic policy solutions in creating jobs and fostering ongoing success in our dynamic automotive landscape,” Jane McCurry, executive director of Clean Fuels Michigan, said in a statement.

Michigan also needs to push to lead the world in mobility and electrification policy and innovation, the report said. To do this, the state should maintain is No. 1 ranking for mobility and electrification research and development spending, become a top 10 state for growth in venture capital funding by 2026, become a top 10 state for federal investments related to mobility and vehicle electrification and lead the nation in electric and automated vehicle friendliness through responsive policies.

“Since its inception, the council has been committed to working across government bodies, industry stakeholders, academic institutions and local communities to fulfill the vision for economic prosperity and mobility for all,” Susan Corbin, director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity and chair of the council, said in a statement. “CFME is excited to present resolutions in this report, and we believe that by action on them, we can help make our state a place where mobility companies find long-term success.”

Corbin Highlights Continued Efforts to Support Workers at Every Stage

Ensuring Michiganders have access to postsecondary education pipelines and encouraging labor force participation are among the many priorities for the expansive Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. Director Susan Corbin said in an interview she has been working toward these goals for a few years and will continue to build upon them for years to come.

In the interview, Corbin spoke in depth about the work of the previous year, particularly when it comes to addressing inequity gaps.

“The Michigan Poverty Task Force celebrated some really meaningful progress on several of the public policy recommendations…including a boost in the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit going from 6 percent to 30 percent,” Corbin said. “We know that that boost in the state Earned Income Tax Credit is absolutely transformational for many working families in Michigan.”

This past year, the department awarded $50 million in grants to nonprofits helping at-risk families, started the Newcomer Rental Subsidy Program offering rental assistance of up to $500 a month and created a new workplace mental health hub to share resources to help employees and employers.

“We had a real focus recently around the construction industry, because we know that the suicide rate among people who work in construction is higher than any other industry in the state,” Corbin said.

Michigan recently lowered the age for the Michigan Reconnect Program from 25 to 21. The program offers tuition assistance to those looking to earn an associate’s degree or a skill certificate. Corbin said approximately 5,000 individuals have applied between the ages of 21 and 24 who were previously uncovered.

This all works towards hitting the governor’s goal of 60 percent of the working age population with a degree or skills certificate by 2030, Corbin said.

LEO also launched the Michigan Achievement Skills Scholarship that provides $2,000 annually to attend an eligible short-term training program for two years.

For employers, the Office of Employment and Training has awarded nearly $65 million in Going PRO Talent funds.

“We know that employees who receive training through Going PRO, I think, on average see an increase of almost 10 percent in their income in the first six months after receiving training,” Corbin said.

Labor force growth also is trending well. Corbin said the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently ranked Michigan number one in the Midwest for labor force growth and number three in the nation for percentage of workers added to the workforce.

“We’ve assisted more than 10,000 small businesses and provided $172 million in follow up funding for startups,” Corbin said.

She also highlighted the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office that received more than $1.5 billion in funding for the broadband equity access and deployment program. The office completed an eight-month, 43-stop community listening tour to hear from residents about their connectivity needs.

Corbin also said LEO was focusing on the data and recommendations in the recently released report from the Growing Michigan Together Council. She was asked about the report mentioning there were too many low wage jobs and said that was something that they already knew.

“The high wage jobs are not equitably distributed, and so we’ve been working on a number of programs to tackle that issue,” Corbin said. “The number one thing that we can do in Michigan is to support more people to get their high school diploma or equivalency. We know there are 500,000 people in Michigan that don’t have a high school degree or equivalency. And then also, supporting people to get post-secondary degrees.”

LEO is home to several other agencies, including the Unemployment Insurance Agency, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation along with the Michigan Strategic Fund.

The Michigan Strategic Fund has supported investments that Corbin said are projected to create more than 26,000 jobs across the state. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation also launched a large campaign to promote careers, recruit talent and attract new businesses to fill jobs.

In addition to the rental subsidy program, Corbin said MSHDA assisted with the implementation of its first statewide housing plan.

The director also said the State Land Bank Authority has continued its work on blight elimination, administrating $150 million in funding to help revitalize communities.

Corbin said LEO now waits for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer‘s budget recommendations for fiscal year 2024-25. During the next four or five years, Corbin said the $1.5 billion for high-speed internet will be implemented to help solve high speed internet issues and will focus on looking at those issues with an education and equity lens.

LEO will also be home to the newly created Community and Worker Economic Transition Office to help industries make a transition to a clean energy economy. Corbin said the office will consider ways to use government funding to help communities and will include programs to support workers with supplemental income, health care benefits, retirement benefits and education access.

“We know that if we have thriving communities, they will be magnets to attract young talent to the state of Michigan,” Corbin said of the work ahead.

UIA Beefs Up Anti-Fraud Efforts Using Federal Grant

The Unemployment Insurance Agency plans to expand its fight against fraud by pursuing bad actors and recovering federal and state money taken from taxpayers with the help of a $2.6 million federal grant.

The U.S. Department of Labor is awarding the agency a $2,609,000 American Rescue Plan Act Integrity Grant. The funds will pay for 30 new limited-term unemployment insurance examiners and regulation agents in the UIA’s Fraud and Investigation Division to resolve outstanding claims arising from identity theft during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Integrity is central to the success of Michigan’s unemployment insurance program. Our agency has zero tolerance for anyone who fraudulently steals money from hard-working Michigan residents who rely on the safety net UIA provides when they lose their jobs,” UIA Director Julia Dale said in a statement. “This grant will allow us to expand our efforts to aggressively pursue bad actors and make them pay for their crimes.”

During the height of the pandemic, some people tried to take advantage of the shifting rules for federal unemployment benefits programs to file fake claims under stolen identities. To date, 162 people have been charged with fraud or identity theft, 90 have been convicted, and 69 have been sentenced. More than $90 million has been recovered so far. During the pandemic era, the agency paid out billions in fraudulent or improper claims.

Many of the new employees have previous UIA work experience and will support the efforts of 50 limited-term employees in the Fraud and Investigations Division who are scheduled to work through at least September 2024.

The UIA continues to work toward modernizing and is prioritizing anti-fraud efforts. The new staff is in addition to the agency naming a legal advisor and creating a legal and compliance bureau to improve anti-fraud practices. The UIA also launched the design and implementation of a new computer system and is collaborating more with the attorney general’s office.

This grant is in addition to the more than $2.3 million equitable access and communications grant the agency received from the federal government to redesign and simplify how it engages with employers and develop a help center for accessing services.

Whitmer Signs Supplemental With Highland Park, School, MiLEAP Funds

Supplemental spending bills wiping out the debt in several school districts, establishing funds for the new education department that took effect this month and moving money toward Highland Park water infrastructure improvements were signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday.

Whitmer signed SB 174 and HB 4292 (PA 320 and PA 321, respectively). The two bills appropriate more than $640 million and take effect on Feb. 13, 2024.

“Across Michigan, we are lowering costs for families, fixing the damn roads, and ensuring every student can get a quality education,” Whitmer said in a statement. “These supplemental bills will alleviate school debt in districts that were hardest hit by financial issues, fund projects in universities throughout our state, and fix the damn roads and bridges in communities across Michigan. I look forward to working with my legislative partners to build on the work we’ve done and continue lowering costs, creating jobs, and helping more people build a bright future right here in Michigan.”

The bills include $30 million General Fund to meet the settlement agreement terms between the city of Highland Park and the Great Lakes Water Authority.

“This is a hugely important step for Highland Park residents and everyone within the GLWA system,” Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) said in a statement. “Access to water is critical for every Michigan community. By sending state funding to fix Highland Park’s water infrastructure, we are moving the whole GLWA system toward a stronger, more fiscally sustainable future. Highland Park residents have long called for a resolution to this issue, and I am very proud to have been a part of making this happen.”

Another key funding measure in the legislation is the $114.1 million School Aid Fund for school district emergency load debt relief.

The Muskegon Heights School District would receive the most, $31.3 million for various debts. Another $19.4 million would go to the former Willow Run Community Schools, and $18.4 million would go to the Pontiac City School District.

The money would also go to make debt payments for Inkster Schools ($12.1 million), the Benton Harbor Area Public Schools ($10 million), and Ypsilanti Community Schools ($5.5 million).

“We are grateful to Gov. Whitmer and the Michigan Legislature for the passing of this bill,” Kelley Williams, superintendent of Pontiac School District, said in a statement. “Our district has worked tirelessly to eliminate our debt. Receiving these funds allows us to now free up money in our General Fund to provide important resources for our students and staff. Consequently, we are proud to be able to say that Pontiac School District is now debt free.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice also praised the funding, saying without the heavy burden of debt, more resources can be focused on students.

“Over a period of time, debt relief can translate to improvements in staffing, curriculum, facilities, materials, and equipment,” Rice said in a statement. “State funds to pay off district bond debt can also help lower taxes in those communities.”

Another $234.2 million in federal funding for state trunkline road and bridge construction will also be appropriated under the bills. $40 million federal funding for child development and care public assistance was also approved.

The bills fund on-campus projects at Michigan community colleges and public universities with capital outlay funding.

Another $6.5 million for the new Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement and Potential is also included in the bills.

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