JEFFERSON — The Jefferson County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday undertook a lengthy discussion of possibly altering its size and committee structure.
During a two-and-a-half-hour session following its normal meeting agenda Tuesday, the board debated dual proposals from Chairperson Jim Schroeder: one that would reduce the number of supervisors (and thus supervisory districts) from 30 to 25, and one that would combine the county’s 11 standing committees to seven.
Nearly every supervisor either asked a question or made comments on the proposals. Ultimately, the board voted 24-1 to direct the county’s Executive Committee to create an ad hoc committee to investigate Schroeder’s proposals and their ramifications in more detail.
The ad hoc committee and its mission will be presented to the full board as a formal resolution at its meeting on Feb. 12.
Schroeder said he brought the proposals forward now for two reasons. First, under the county’s Strategic Plan, the board chairperson was tasked to examine the board as a “department” of county government in order to find more efficiencies and how to better serve the public. Second, the board will be forced, by law, to do redistricting after the 2020 census and have those districts formulated in time for the 2022 spring elections, when the supervisors next are on the ballot.
Schroeder noted that the process to reduce the board should start now so that there would be a plan in place for redistricting.
Prior to Schroeder’s presentations, the board heard from John Hochkammer, outreach manager of the Wisconsin Counties Association, on the trends of board sizes and their committee structures. His remarks were for informational purposes only, and he did not advocate for or against the Jefferson County board reducing its numbers.
According to Hochkammer, Wisconsin is one of 13 states that require counties, not state agencies, to perform human and social services, and Wisconsin requires counties to perform more services overall than most other states.
In 2005, Act 100 passed the Wisconsin state legislature. That law stated that, outside of federal redistricting requirements after a census, a county can reduce its board size once under its own initiates between regular 10-year redistricting. It also allows electors to reduce their board sizes by petition and the referendum process. However, reducing the size of the board does not reduce the statutory and constitutional mandates that are placed on counties, Hochkammer explained.
Hochkammer then discussed several items he labeled “things to consider” about smaller board sizes. Those included that a smaller board could provide efficiencies; consolidating committees could lead to more staff meeting their daily responsibilities; it could broaden supervisors’ perspectives by making them more aware of county operations, but be able to focus more on policy decisions.
However, he said, smaller boards increase the odds of violating open meetings laws and make it harder to hold quorums. Also, supervisors will have additional work that otherwise would be completed by committees, thus requiring higher compensation, and smaller boards could exclude people from running for office.
On that last point, Hochkammer said that on average, each election only has between 18- percent to 22-percent turnover. He noted that large turnovers in elected boards most often have some specific cause, such as tax or environmental issues.
He noted that some counties have reduced their supervisor members’ count. In 2007, Walworth County downsized from 25 to 11 members. Likewise, Polk County went from 23 to 15, Monroe County dropped from 24 to 16, and Washington County went from 30 to 26 supervisors. He also noted that most county governments are much more partisan than Wisconsin’s, which officially have nonpartisan positions.
He added that all 72 counties in the state “have 72 different ways of conducting business.”
After Hochkammer concluded, Schroeder made his presentation, stepping down as chairperson temporarily since he was formally introducing the proposals. For the first presentation on board size, County Clerk Barb Frank took over as acting chairperson, and for the second one on committee sizes, County Administrator Ben Wehmeier served as acting chairperson. Each received assistance from county counsel J. Blair Ward.
The reason that Frank and Wehmeier took over was that, as Schroeder noted, since he was calling for a reduction in supervisors — and supervisory districts — there was a concern that every supervisor could be perceived, potentially, as having a conflict of interest. That is because it was unknown — if the proposal had been fully acted upon — whose district could or would be eliminated in any hypothetical reduction.
Schroeder noted that Jefferson is one of 10 counties in the state that have 30 or more supervisors. Marinette County also has 30; Green, Oconto and Sauk counties have 31; Dodge County has 33; Outagamie and Winnebago counties have 36; Dane County has 37; and Marathon County has 38.
“Comparable data shows that Jefferson County has a large number of members compared to Wisconsin counties overall,” Schroeder said. “Multiple academic sources state that the ideal size for a board or similar decisionmaking group is seven to nine members. On the other hand, it can be argued that government in a democracy is different than governance for a profit or nonprofit corporation, because of government’s representative nature and mandate.”
Schroeder said that he, personally, would like to see the board reduced to 15 members, but he felt that, realistically, it would not pass the board. However, he said he felt 25 was a good number that could reach a compromise.
“I have received more communication on this than on any issue since being elected in 2010,” Schroeder said. “When I call people on unrelated matters, they want to talk board size, and it is unanimous that 30 is too much.”
Schroeder’s second proposal was to reduce, by combining, the number or county committees from 11 to seven; however, each committee would have seven members, up from the current practice of five members.
“Some items of business routinely go through two or more standing committees before being forwarded to the board for action,” Schroeder said. “The concern is that valuable staff time is spent staffing committee meetings rather than implementing action.”
He proposed a committee restructure of:
• Executive and Intergovernmental Cooperation Committee.
• Finance and Personnel Committee, combining Finance and Human Resources committees.
• Public Safety Committee, renaming the Law Enforcement and Emergency Management Committee.
• Public Works Committee, combining Buildings and Grounds and Highway committees.
• Planning, Land Use, and Natural Resources Committee, combining the Land and Water Conservation, Planning and Zoning, Solid Waste and Air Quality committees.
• Outdoor Recreation and Entertainment Committee, combining the Fair Park and Parks Committee.
•UW Extension Education Committee. This would be a place holder as the future of the current governance model of the UW Extension is uncertain.
While he did not formally add it to his list, Schroeder suggested that the county’s Board of Health and Human Services Board be combined into a Health and Human Services Board “with size and composition aligned with state statutes.”
Again, nearly every supervisor present Tuesday made at least one comment — and many made more than one — on Schroeder’s proposals. Some were in support of his changes, some were against them, and many were more focused on practical and logistical issues.
Supervisor George Jaeckel agreed with Schroeder, noting that “larger committees see more views, and we will not send resolutions back to committees so often,” he said.
Supervisor Mary Roberts asked why this was an issue at all. Supervisor Augie Tietz voiced concern about additional workloads.
Supervisor Laura Payne argued that there was no compelling reason for the change, and Supervisor Walt Christensen said none of his constituents ever mentioned it to him, adding “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Supervisor Jim Mode said that as he understood, prior to levy limits being imposed, that counties with smaller boards often had higher taxes.
Supervisor Amy Rinard said that there were not too many supervisors, but that “too many of us are the same,” noting that there were only three women currently on the board and no other minorities at all.
Supervisor Dick Schultz said he could see both sides, and that more input was needed.
Many of the other concerns raised echoed Hochkammer’s list of concerns. At one point, Supervisor Dan Herbst asked how many supervisors had spoken to their constituents about the board and committee sizes; only four supervisors raised their hands.
Eventually, the board decided that an ad hoc committee was needed to research the impacts of Schroeder’s proposals. Appointments to that committee will be made by the existing county Executive Committee, and the ad hoc committee will have both supervisors and county staff on it.
After the two-and-a-half-hour meeting concluded, Schroeder said he was happy with the level of discussion that his proposals elicited from the board, but reiterated that the conversation was just beginning.
“I feel we had good start to the discussion and I am glad we did this,” he said. “The intent behind this was that we owe it to the public, and the public includes our employees, to take a look at our county board operations as we ask all of our departments to look at their operations for more efficiencies. We had a great start, and the discussion will continue.”
County resident Anita Martin spoke against Schroeder’s proposals during the public comment period before the presentations were made Tuesday. She was the only resident to do so