As the level of toxicity in the relationship between the Milwaukee county executive and County Board rises, the state Legislature has signaled its intent to consider county governance reform measures. While details of the reform package emerge, it’s useful to take a step back and examine county boards’ roots and fundamental responsibilities to determine where we’ve come from and where we ought to head.
Counties can trace their origin to English monarchies who appointed earls to collect taxes and keep the peace. This unit of government as an administrative arm of the Crown was brought to America with local bodies authorized by the state to carry out certain limited responsibilities.
The reasons for the creation of county governments in the early colonial period were practical. As populations settled distances from established cities, there arose a need for local governments to oversee state programs. The county was born out of a need to supervise government functions in the hinterlands.
By the constitution of 1848, Wisconsin adopted the New England form of local government in which Supervisors were elected to a county board. This system was chosen over the “commissioner” form of government, common in the southern states, in which public policy is made at the county courthouse rather than the statehouse or city hall. Under the structure adopted here, a limited role was established for counties, with more expansive functions assumed by city and town governments.
To this day, counties have remained instrumentalities of state government. Unlike cities and villages that possess home rule powers, counties exist as administrative arms of the state. County government was created by and for the state to carry out certain prescribed duties. Simply put, counties are subject to control by the Legislature.
Against this backdrop, consider the Milwaukee County Board. Far from the limited, narrow scope intended for county government, the Milwaukee County budget has grown into a $1.3 billion behemoth. A snapshot of spending related to the County Board reveals that from 1987 to 2012, the portion of the county budget devoted to the board grew from$5.3 million to $8.3 million. Despite the county workforce being cut in half during this period, program creep has ballooned the number of full-time board employees to 79.
The board’s growth is partially the result of state laws that contain ill-defined, fragmented and diffused powers between and among the executive and the board. Lacking clear lines of demarcation allows the board to inject itself in administrative duties that should be the responsibility of the executive.
Calls for change have largely gone unheeded. Blue-ribbon commissions calling for the board to discard the micromanagement mindset and adopt a policy-making role have been ignored. Judging by the results of the advisory referendum held in 12 Milwaukee County municipalities in April 2012, there is a considerable appetite among the public for change. In communities as diverse as Shorewood, River Hills and Cudahy, voters overwhelmingly supported moving to a part-time County Board.
The state legislation under consideration will focus on redefining the position of county supervisor as a citizen-legislator rather than career politician, similar to what currently exists in all other Wisconsin county, city and village boards as well as similarly-sized counties in other states.
Critics argue that a full-time and generously-compensated board has not achieved the outcomes that increasingly-pressed taxpayers are demanding. Instead, many look at the current structure and see gridlock resulting from the board and executive facing off over issues large and small. In essence, they see two administrative branches with neither clearly in charge.
Consider the plight of the county department head. Hired by the county executive, these professionals often discover upon attending their first county board committee that they actually must report to eighteen supervisors who see themselves as mini-county executives, In an effort to accommodate their requests, managers spend hundreds of hours generating reports and responding to special requests or pet projects.
The modern-day Milwaukee County Board has strayed far from what was envisioned for county government. Reformers suggest that a county executive possessing clear authority to run the county operations, coupled with a policy-focused, less government career-minded county board will bring about needed cultural and institutional improvements and restore public trust in county government.
Where do we go from here? If reports of the proposed bill are accurate, upon passage voters in Milwaukee County will be given an opportunity to approve or reject a ballot question on making the county board a part-time body. This is a wise element and answers the critique that the state legislation erodes local control. To the contrary, this initiative places in the hands of the voters the power to determine exactly what they want out of a County Board.
Joseph Rice of Whitefish Bay served on the Milwaukee County Board from 2004 to 2012.