Chair of State House panel applies the linear approach

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By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

Word travels fast in Lansing, much faster than it took Mark Ouimet to make the short walk from the State Capitol to his legislative office across the street from the historic jewel that sparkles downtown.

Just days into his job as State Representative for the 52nd District, Ouimet was about to come face-to-face with legislative reality. Seemingly it was just minutes after he had been appointed chair of the powerful Local, Intergovernmental, and Regional Affairs Committee of the State House, a particularly plum position for a first time legislator.

The ink, as they say, was "barely dry" on his appointment as committee chair when the former Washtenaw County Commissioner walked into his ninth floor office and "immediately knew that this would not be an ordinary day at work."

Far from it, in fact.

Waiting for the new committee chair were members of Detroit City Council, including President Charles Pugh and President Pro Tem Gary Brown, both intent on lobbying Ouimet about the importance of maintaining local control of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

No sooner had the city lobbyists made their point, when it was time for the other side to be heard, as officials from Detroit suburban communities pleaded their case for greater transparency and accountability in the operation of the giant utility that has been a lightning rod for criticism over higher rates.

Then, of course, there were reporters from various TV and radio outlets, all waiting for a sound bite or two from the recently-appointed chair of the 15-member Local, Intergovernmental, and Regional Affairs Committee.

His legislative views have become just as newsworthy on other subjects that have come before the state committee, particularly proposed legislation to expand the powers of emergency financial managers for distressed school districts and municipalities.

According to Ouimet, the series of bills would give emergency financial managers the power to restructure local government, exclude elected officials from meetings, and sell, lease or otherwise use local government assets to pay off debt.

The proposed legislation also would make it easier for the state treasurer to appoint an emergency financial manager, as well as provide safeguards to ensure that local units do not go into receivership in the first place.

Currently, emergency financial managers are in place for the cities of Pontiac, Ecorse and Benton Harbor, as well as for Detroit Public Schools.

The proposed legislation, if approved, could lead to the appointment of many more across the state as local governmental units wrestle with declining property tax revenues and higher budget costs.

The state's dire fiscal situation, which over the last few years has been marked by record high jobless rates and a meltdown in the housing market, prompted Ouimet to seek state office last year, an election battle he won over Democratic challenger Christine Green.

"I grew up, started my professional career, and raised my family . . . in Washtenaw County," Ouimet said during the campaign. "Five generations of my family have made this great county their home. I want our next generation, our children and grandchildren, to have those same opportunities to grow and prosper . . . in Washtenaw County, should they so choose.

"Unfortunately, today, most of our young adults . . . our talent . . . are being forced to look elsewhere for those opportunities," Ouimet said.

"And the only answers proposed in Lansing seem to be to raise taxes on families and place more regulations on job providers. As a businessman, I know first-hand that those tactics quickly bring economic development to a screeching halt."

If the message sounds a lot like what a certain Republican governor has been espousing, there are good reasons for that, according to Ouimet, who professes to be a "linear type" of thinker.

"Rick Snyder and I have been friends for a long time and I'm a strong believer in his plan to create jobs by bringing fiscal responsibility back to Michigan," Ouimet said.

"He is the kind of dynamic leader that this state needs to get us back on our feet. We are at an economic crossroad and his budget plan can help reverse the job losses that we've experienced over the past decade.

"Until we start creating jobs, this state is going to be stuck in a vicious cycle of budget troubles that will threaten the very stability of our governmental institutions."

A native of Ann Arbor, Ouimet graduated from the former University High School, where he was a three-sport standout for the Cubs, competing in football, basketball, and track.

His talent as a quarterback attracted the attention of then Central Michigan University coach Herb Deromedi, but Ouimet elected to take a scholarship offer from then Northwood Institute in Midland instead. There, Ouimet would start at quarterback all four years, leading Northwood to three winning seasons.

As a senior signal-caller, he guided unbeaten Northwood into a showdown with a similarly undefeated squad from Northern Michigan University, a gridiron rival featuring its own talented quarterback.

Lloyd Carr.

"We entered the game undefeated, but we didn't leave that way," Ouimet said of the 55-0 shellacking his Northwood team took that day. "Lloyd certainly won the battle of the quarterbacks."

During his time at Northwood, Ouimet also worked summers in the family business, The Collins Shop, a women's clothing store at the corner of State and Liberty in Ann Arbor.

It was a business apprenticeship that took on greater immediacy following the death of his father in 1967 at the age of 52.

Ouimet was just months from earning his high school diploma when his dad died, sending shock waves through the family and Ann Arbor business community.

"My dad (Larry) ran the business successfully for years and was very civically minded," Ouimet said.

"He was a voice of reason wherever the discussion turned."

Like his father, Ouimet would serve on Ann Arbor City Council, two terms to his dad's three.

Similarly, both chaired the board of the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce, while also serving in leadership capacities with the Washtenaw County Chapter of the American Red Cross.

Civic involvement also dates back to Ouimet's grandfather, who similarly was elected chair of the Chamber of Commerce and served on the Red Cross board.

Ouimet's mother, Maggie, took over the reins of the clothing business upon the death of her husband, eventually selling the store and the building five years later. The shop is now the site of a Starbucks outlet on the busy campus crossroads.

Upon graduation from Northwood, Ouimet embarked on a 27-year career in banking, starting as a teller and climbing through the ranks to eventually become president and chairman of a community bank in Ann Arbor.

In 1997, he returned to his academic roots, serving as chancellor and chief operating officer of Northwood for five years, helping shepherd the school through the accreditation process to become a full-fledged university.

All the while, Ouimet remained committed to community and charitable work, serving in fund-raising and leadership roles with Mott Children's Hospital, the United Way of Washtenaw County, the Red Cross, Ele's Place, Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber of Commerce, Ann Arbor SPARK, and the Washtenaw Economic Development Council. It was work that dovetailed nicely with his passion for volunteerism.

"Working on behalf of good causes has been in my blood," Ouimet said.

"The rewards of service are far greater than the energy I have expended over the years. There is nothing better than seeing people pull together for the public good."

It's a commitment he shares with his wife, Donna Hrozencik, a native of Chicago. Hrozencik is an obstetrician/gynecologist with a practice based in Canton. The couple met on a blind date in 1988 while Hrozencik was a resident at University of Michigan Hospital and have been married for 17 years.

Ouimet, who served three terms on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, has two children and two grandchildren. Daughter Courtney lives in Portland, Ore., where she manages a restaurant.

She was an All-State softball player at Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor, earning a scholarship to play at Ferris State University.

Her brother, Mark, also graduated from Gabriel Richard, receiving a golf scholarship to Siena Heights University.

He now is an assistant football coach and assistant recruiting coordinator at Mississippi State University after formerly serving on the football staff at the University of Michigan.

"There definitely were some mixed emotions when Michigan and Mississippi State played in the bowl game," Ouimet said of the January 1 showdown between the Big Ten and SEC schools.

"Mark certainly was happy with the outcome although he definitely has wonderful memories of his time at Michigan."

While his family will always be at the center of his life, Ouimet said he is similarly devoted to helping usher Michigan into "a new era of growth and prosperity" over the decade ahead.

"I am looking forward to working hand and glove with Governor Snyder in his efforts to make Michigan an economic force again," said Ouimet, one of just three freshman legislators appointed to a committee chairmanship.

"Some people would look at the task ahead and see nothing but challenges, while Governor Snyder prefers to see them in terms of 'opportunities.'

"That's the kind of thinking that I prefer as well," he said.

Published: Mon, Mar 28, 2011

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