Attorney/water advocate Elaine Isely launches Kent County drain commissioner campaign

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

County drain commissioners have a complicated relationship with water. For years the job was considered almost exclusively to consist of getting water out of the way, through overseeing the drainage system.

With increased understanding of the way water works and with an increasingly sophisticated regulatory atmosphere, the position has been changing over the past couple of decades, with people elected to the position representing a spectrum of old ways to new.

Says Elaine Isely, who has recently launched a run for drain commissioner in Kent County, “Stormwater management is an evolving field, particularly as we’re seeing more water and more storms. We need to have innovative solutions as to how to manage it. ‘Let’s get it off the site as quickly as we can’ is not doable anymore. Traditional stormwater management consisted of pushing the problem off to somebody downstream, and we’ve seen we can’t do that anymore.”

Because pre-settlement Michigan was swampy and wet, the position of drain commissioner began at the state’s inception in 1837. Though other states have equivalents, it is Michigan that calls the officeholders drain commissioners (with a recent change to the 1956 Drain Code allowing such titles as “water resource commissioner”)  – and Michigan is one of the few where that position is an elected one.

According to the Michigan Association of County Drain Commissioners, “Michigan’s drain commissioners... administer laws involving flood protection, stormwater management, and soil erosion and seek to protect Michigan’s water resources in the process. Today, drain commissioners strive to balance the need for proper drainage with water quality and natural resource management in a cost-effective manner, resulting in public health benefits.”

Because such matters have concerned Elaine Isely both personally and professionally for many years, she has decided to throw her hat in the ring. “The primary reason  I’m running is that everybody has the right to access clean water. Water is life, we can’t live without it. So we need to make sure we’re managing it in a way that appreciates how important it is, and the drain commissioner’s job, through the stormwater piece, is critical,” she says.

Her qualifications are many. Isely has worked on water resource management and policy for 15 years, including in her current position as Director of Water Programs at West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) since late 2012. But her background as an attorney should also prove helpful, since a command of the Drain Code, and especially of the position’s taxing authority, is complex.

Isely started out her working life as a lawyer, with the bulk of her legal career spent in public interest law.

“I worked for a year at an insurance defense firm after law school, but it wasn’t a good fit. When I was in law school I clerked for a small plaintiffs’ litigation firm in medical malpractice, but I also worked for the Wayne County Department of Environmental Quality Air Quality Division for a year. I’m actually much more comfortable in the nonprofit and public sector,” she says.

Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Maryland but still very close to the nation’s capital, Isely attended the University of Maryland for her B.S. in Finance. She received her J.D. from Wayne State University.

She then went on to work at Legal Aid of Western Michigan for three and a half years, followed by a two-year stint at Michigan Migrant Legal Assistance Project, now called Migrant Legal Aid.

During that time, she was active in the Grand Rapids Bar Association and its Young Lawyers Section. It was through a YLS party that she met her husband Paul, a well-known regional economist who is now Associate Dean of the Seidman Business School at Grand Valley State University (GVSU).

The two live with their nine-year-old son Terrance in Grand Rapids Township.

Though she liked being an attorney, Isely’s passion was for environmental and ecological work, so she returned to GVSU in 2003 for her Master’s degree in Biology and Natural Resources Management.

During her four years as a research associate, also at GVSU, Isely published an important report establishing economic valuation of environmental benefits, focusing on collaborative management of natural resources. She was also briefly the director of the Green Infrastructure Project Initiative of the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, a position which promoted some of the natural solutions to the problems caused by stormwater runoff – one example would be installation of rain gardens.

In her current position with WMEAC, Isely continues her relationship with GVSU?as an advisor to its Natural Resources Management Program. She is also the founding member and current chair of the Grand Rapids Stormwater Oversight Commission; a founding member of the Wolverine Worldwide Tannery Community Advisory Group, formed to address potential issues during the tannery’s tear-down; an appointed member of the Michigan State Waterways Commission; and an advisor to Michigan State University Extension’s Water School.

What will Isely try to accomplish if her run for drain commissioner is successful? “I think we need to be more creative about the solutions, and do a lot of collaborating. There are many groups such as Grand Valley Metro Council and Plaster Creek Stewards, as well as WMEAC, who have expertise in putting in green infrastructure,” she says.

Isely also intends to focus on education about water and groundwater issues, which she feels will help members of the public understand why certain practices are better, particularly if they face tax assessments.

“Right now some of these issues are being elevated; people may not want to think about water in general, but they will if their house is falling into the lake. But some of what’s happening doesn’t necessarily make the news,” she says.

“We’ve spent so much time historically keeping water out of sight and out of mind. That’s why I believe public education is so important.”

So far, no one else has filed to run on the Democratic side, so it appears Isely will likely face incumbent drain commissioner Ken Yonker, a former state representative, in November.

Current “stay-home” conditions make getting the word out about her candidacy difficult.

“Campaigning during a pandemic is very tricky,” Isely says. “I enjoy talking to people one-on-one, but we’ve mostly been trying to reach out to people on the phone and connect with people other ways. We’re all re-shifting our daily schedules and there’s just this new normal out there.”

But, she adds, “I think it’s so important that we engage a lot of people with their water. It’s all connected – what we do on the land affects everybody downstream.”


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