Democratic drains

By Sam Inglot

Critics of the Eaton County drain commissioner say he's nearly impossible to contact and wanted guns for his office. The incumbent says it's either untrue or taken out of context

Guns. Partisan politics. Used cars. County drains. Who says Ingham County is the only place with interesting drain commissioner races?

Republicans are attempting to reclaim this countywide seat they held for years. The accusations against Democratic Drain Commissioner Mike Atayan include requesting guns, body armor and claims that he’s a no-show at work. Atayan says the GOP is just firing blanks.

Atayan, 50, is seeking a second term in Republican-rampant Eaton County. He took office in 2008 after beating Republican Drain Commissioner Brady Harrington. Atayan has a communications degree from Michigan State University and manages Davis Auto Mart in Charlotte, which is owned by his father. He said he holds certifications from the state in storm water management and soil erosion, as well as training in watershed protection.

Atayan’s management of the car dealership and service center is partly why his opponents are riled up. They say because he tries to split his time between managing the dealership and conducting his drain office duties that he is nearly impossible to reach. The drain commissioner position is full time.

“The present drain commissioner won’t call anyone back. My mission is going to be to bring some integrity back to the office,” said Richard Wagner, Atayan’s Republican challenger. “You’ve got to be there, you can’t be running a car dealership. You never see him at the drain office.”

Bruce Porter, who came in third out of six candidates in a highly contested Republican primary field, feels the same. He lost to Wagner by less than 300 votes.

“The current drain commissioner is somewhat of a derelict,” Porter said. “He’s a used car salesman. He has no business doing what he’s doing.”

Wagner, 55, says he’s more qualified, with 30 years of aerial survey experience and previous work for drain commissioners. He said he’s also done construction projects for the state and Michigan State University.

Atayan counters that he hasn’t missed a day of work in his four years at the drain office. As for splitting his civic duties with the dealership, Atayan said his opponents — and a recent story in the State Journal — are somewhat misleading as to how much time he actually spends between the two jobs.

“I don’t run the car dealership. I have my same title but I fill in and help where needed. I don’t run the day-to-day operations. I fill in the void as needed, which I clearly disclosed prior to my campaign,” he said.

Two employees at Davis Auto Mart said Atayan is not in the dealership very often. Atayan said business is down at the dealership because he is not there, but he said he knew that would be the price of public office.

Atayan said he’s actively in the field doing inspections on drains and overseeing construction projects on a daily basis — and with a small staff it makes it difficult for him to be in the office.

“I’m a working drain commissioner. I have very competent people … who do not have to be micromanaged,” he said. “We have over 700 drain districts in the drain office exceeding 2,000 miles,” before noting his relatively small staff of five.

Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann said he has 25 people on staff.

The allegations don’t stop there. A recent story published on the Journal’s website quoted Wagner saying that Atayan requested sniper rifles, bulletproof vests and police radios in his annual budget. Even though the county controller told the Journal there was no such request, state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, who is formerly the Eaton County sheriff, ran with the claims in an interview with City Pulse. Jones is supporting Wagner. Wagner has since said he was mistaken on the sniper rifles.

Atayan said The Journal report didn’t point out that the request for radios and handguns was made as part of a grant spending request, not his annual budget. Atayan made a request for just over $161,000 worth of equipment under a Department of Homeland Security grant in 2009. He never requested bulletproof vests or sniper rifles. He did, however, request three Springfield Armory XD Service Pistols. He said it was for drain office staff safety when they’re out in the field, which can mean walking through miles of backwoods.

“We’ve been chased by dogs and recently chased by a bull,” he said. “We have to look at our own officers’ safety.”

Other requests included a crew cab truck, a trailer large enough to haul a small backhoe, radios with shoulder speakers, a “full facepiece” respirator, three hazmat suits and six pairs of chest waders. Atayan’s grant money request was ultimately denied.

A lonely Dem

Eaton County is a stark political contrast to neighboring Ingham County. Ingham is a Democratic stronghold whereas Eaton has a strong history of Republican rule. But some people say that might be changing.

Atayan is the only Democrat to be elected to a countywide position for at least the past 10 years. Wagner said Atayan “slipped in on the ‘Obama-wave’” in 2008. Atayan beat former drain commissioner Harrington by 3,555 votes. It was in that same election and the election prior that Democrats won a majority on the board of commissioners.

Wagner said the downward spiraling attitudes toward former President George W. Bush and the roaring support for Barack Obama helped get Atayan into the position along with some controversy surrounding the former drain commissioner.

From 2000 to 2006 the most Democrats that were on the county commission totaled three. In 2006 and 2008, they claimed the majority. But in the 2010 election, they were put back into a small minority by what local Democratic strategist Joe DiSano called a “Republican tsunami.”

However, the political shift may be more long term, DiSano says. While “hiccups” in the Romney campaign are bound to affect lower ballot races like county drain commissioner, he added that there are more Democrats moving into Eaton County.

“You’re starting to see Democrats from Ingham migrate,” he said. “You’re seeing more people with master’s and postgraduate degrees — and those people tend to vote Democrat.”