Guest of the White House: Dontz attends unprecedented Michigan County Commissioners Conference

Jeff Dontz, chair of the Manistee County Board of Commissioners, attended the first-ever Michigan County Commissioners Conference in Washington D.C. on Tuesday. (Courtesy photo)

Jeff Dontz, chair of the Manistee County Board of Commissioners, attended the first-ever Michigan County Commissioners Conference in Washington D.C. on Tuesday. (Courtesy photo)

WASHINGTON D.C. — While out to lunch last week, Jeff Dontz received an unlikely call.

“I generally wouldn’t have taken it, but it was a 202 area code,” he said, “and I thought that might be from Washington DC.

“Lo and behold, it was from the White House.”

The chair of the Manistee County Board of Commissioners was understandably skeptical of a caller claiming to be from the nation’s capital.

“I thought it was a prank phone call at first,” Dontz said with a laugh, “but after awhile I realized, ‘holy smokes, this is for real.’”

Real indeed, with a legitimate invite for Dontz to attend the first-ever Michigan County Commissioners’ White House Conference, in which he participated on Tuesday in Washington D.C.

“Politics is all about building relationships,” he said, “and on top of that I felt this would be a life experience, so I decided to go. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

The unprecedented event — dedicated solely for county commissioners — was the third in a series hosted by President Donald J. Trump’s Administration this summer, following conferences attended by local leaders from Pennsylvania and Florida in July.

According to the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, the purpose of the event was to develop and promote a working relationship between the White House/federal agencies and the influential leaders of local Michigan communities.

As part of the administration’s localized and bipartisan outreach effort, commissioners heard individual presentations from various federal agencies and were encouraged to engage in policy discussions with members of White House staff.

Dontz joined nearly 100 commissioners and local officials representing counties from across the state to do just that.

“Regardless of what anybody’s political position is, this was totally unprecedented,” Dontz said. “It’s never been done before, and I can tell you I’m extremely appreciative of the opportunity the administration gave us by reaching out to the local units (of government).

“It’s like the Major Leagues reaching out to the farm system,” he joked. “They didn’t have to do it, and I’m still somewhat shocked it happened.”

Dontz, who had been to Washington D.C. just once before but never to the White House, arrived to the capital city on Monday. That evening, he and fellow county commissioners across the state met for a briefing hosted by the Michigan Association of Counties (MAC) and the National Association of Counties (NACo) at NACo’s headquarters.

“This is an exciting opportunity for local leaders in Michigan to give their views on key issues directly to White House decision-makers,” stated Shelley Taub, Oakland County commissioner and president of MAC’s Board of Directors.

“This allows us and our NACo counterparts to provide Michigan commissioners an overview of the crucial issues in play at the federal level,” stated Stephan W. Currie, MAC’s executive director.

The following day, the group gathered in the morning for a tour of the White House before breaking for lunch. The official conference was held in the afternoon, which featured numerous presentations from representatives of several departments and agencies.

Notable speakers included Betsy DeVos, Secretary of the Department of Education; Linda McMahon, Administrator of the Small Business Administration; Justin Clark, Director of Intergovernmental Affairs & Deputy Assistant to the President; and Billy Kirkland, Deputy Director of Intergovernmental Affairs.

Each presentation was followed with a question and answer session, opening the floor for dialogue between the localized leaders and high ranking officials. During these portions of the conference, topics and concerns specific to Michigan were addressed.

“One of the big issues that came up over and over again from our group was the Great Lakes, and the concern over Asian Carp,” Dontz said. “That was echoed throughout the day.”

Dontz joked that several commissioners he met during the trip shared similar stories of doubt when they received the call to come to the White House. Ironically, keeping communication open between the highest and most local levels of government was exactly the reason for the event.

“The overlying theme from all of the speakers was, ‘What are we doing that we need to do better? What can we change that may be stopping you from being effective with what you’re doing?’” Dontz said. “They want to eliminate red tape and get their services out in an efficient manner, as opposed to the bureaucracy that has been growing for decades on both parties.”

Dontz said there was discussion of possible phone conferences to be held periodically for Michigan’s commissioners to keep the communication with the White House open.

The event itself, he said, was a great experience.

“I’d do it again in a minute,” Dontz said. “To have that type of access is unprecedented, and I thought the tone everyone had toward us was exceptional.”

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Posted by Dylan Savela

Dylan is the county reporter for the News Advocate, he also is in charge of the Small Town Life, religion and senior pages. He can be reached at (231) 398-3111 or dsavela@pioneergroup.com.

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