Incumbent Republican Drain Commissioner Richard Wagner is facing Republican challenger Larry Wicker in this year’s primary. The winner will go on to face one of three Democratic candidates in the General Election: Bruce Porter, Will Pitylak or Branden Dyer. Wagner didn’t return calls and emails; his challengers all think they can do a better job.
Larry Wicker is a 64-year-old retired Republican who moved from Lansing to Eaton Rapids in 1990. He studied at Concordia and Lansing Community colleges before launching a series of private construction companies that focused largely on civil engineering work.
“That’s why I decided to run: I have this background in civil engineering. That’s what I did for 20 years — designed and installed underground pipes, built subdivisions and did the sitework and things like that. I’ve been involved with drains for my entire professional life,” he said.
Wicker has twice run unsuccessfully for county drain commissioner against Wagner.
“This time, I’m getting frustrated because I see all these roads being shut down because the drains haven’t been maintained properly,” Wicker said. “We need a report on every single drain so we can go out and fix them before they all fall apart. That’s the job, and it’s not being done.”
Wicker’s top three priorities are drain maintenance, environmental protection and total transparency, including a monthly newsletter that details drain-related matters in the county. He also wants a “real plan” to assess pollutants entering waterways across Eaton County.
“I’m retired, seeing these problems, and still want to participate in my community,” Wicker added. “I know I can do the job and fix these problems. That’s what it all boils down to. That, and saving taxpayer dollars by no longer ignoring so many big maintenance projects.”
On the Democratic side, Bruce Porter, 73, was born and raised in Eaton Rapids. He graduated from ITT Technical Institute, worked as a street engineer for the city of Indianapolis and later returned to Greater Lansing to work at the Ingham County Drain Commissioner’s Office. Porter worked at various private engineering firms and recently served for more than a year as the Eaton County deputy drain commissioner before he was fired under Wagner’s administration.
“The drain commissioner is not getting the job done — plain and simple,” Porter explained. “We’re spending too much on engineering firms and legal fees, which is doubling the cost of maintenance work. This man can’t review a set of plans without paying a consultant to do it.”
Porter spent the bulk of a 30-minute interview criticizing Wagner rather than explaining his own qualification for the job. His top priorities included spending less on outside firms and to physically come to work on a daily basis, something that he alleged Wagner doesn’t usually do.
“I’m much more experienced, I’m familiar with the drain code and I’ve done civil engineering work for over 30 years,” Porter added. “This man just doesn’t get it. People are getting tired.”
Porter seeks to slash maintenance costs by 50%, use sealed bids for all maintenance projects, block drain consolidations and prevent unfair assessments. He also vowed to reduce flooding at Columbia and Canal roads, as weather permits, in 2021.
Will Pitylak, 32, is among the younger candidates in the race but contends he has more real-world experience on the job than anyone else in the field, including the current commissioner. He grew up in Dimondale, lives in Charlotte, and is licensed in construction and waste treatment.
Pitylak, a farmer who owns an excavating company, said he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Among his priorities: assess every single drain in the county for maintenance priorities.
“We’ve had quite a few fields that have started to flood, and with some of the interactions people have had with the drain office, they’re just not performing or really doing anything about it,” he explained. “There’s this general consensus that they’re just skating by with bare minimums.”
Pitylak’s priorities also include better leadership, a rewritten drain code and transparency. He said the drain office has become a “punching bag” for the county and, if elected, he would serve as a “real leader” who shows up often, interacts with the community and answers all questions.
“I believe I’m the only candidate who is dealing with these problems every single day,” Pitylak added. “I have the knowledge and the experience and I know all of the protocols. The other candidates, in my book, just don’t have enough practical experience. They lack common sense.”
Pitylak said the next drain commissioner will need to serve for eight to 10 years to make significant progress — and repair the damage of the existing status quo. He’s willing to take the challenge.
“The drains are in such bad condition,” Pityak said. “We need someone with a long-term vision.”
Dyer, 30, of Charlotte, is the youngest candidate in the race. He has a bachelor’s degree from Olivet College and a graduate certificate from Oakland University and serves as a manager at an undisclosed nonprofit in Lansing. He’s also serving a second term on the Charlotte City Council.
“Environmental conservation is one of my passion areas, and this office deals a lot with environmental concerns,” Dyer explained. “I’ve also always had a passion for public service.”
Dyer’s top three priorities for the office, if elected, would be to enhance fiscal responsibility and transparency, promote environmental conservation and bolster communication with the public — including local residents who want to ensure their tax and assessment dollars are well spent.
“There’s a bit of concern out there with the bidding process that the current drain commissioner is using, and he is receiving a number of campaign contributions from current vendors. There’s just a lack of communication, and the community needs someone willing to engage with them.”
Dyer said that his Democratic challengers haven’t been elected to public office and might struggle to build relationships with residents and listen to their concerns. And if voters want someone who can beat Wagner in November, then Dyer bills himself as the “clear choice.”