Supervisors consider county board structure, committee's configuration

By Steve Sharp:

JEFFERSON -- As promised and officially scheduled, Jefferson County Board Chairman Jim Schroeder began 2019’s board functions with a provocative bang Tuesday evening when he made a pair of presentations designed to get supervisors thinking about how they are doing their jobs and where, or even if, improvements need to be made.

By the end of the unusually lengthy regular session for January, supervisors seemed to have spoken their peace on what they thought the size of the current 30-member board should be, as well as how committees should be considered for restructuring.

A resolution was designed at the end of the session indicating the county board of supervisors should direct its executive committee to establish an exploratory panel to examine the size of the county board, as well as the committee structure. This committee will then report its findings to the county board at a date yet to be determined.

A lengthy discussion by supervisors about board size and committee design followed a presentation by Jon Hochkammer, outreach manager for the Wisconsin Counties Association who said, “There are 72 counties in Wisconsin and 72 different ways of doing business.” Schroeder’s presentations and proposals on county board size and the committees fell between.

“Jefferson County government, in its operations, has been involved in a change process with positive results for several years,” Schroeder told his colleagues. “This process has accelerated within the past two years, with the introduction of priority based budgeting, a process where departments are charged with looking at what they do, and why and how they do it. The process of priority based budgeting may lead to structural change in some departments over time. The county board of supervisors, as the department of county government charged with policy-making, should likewise take a look at the what, why and how it serves the public.”

Schroeder said the first step in self-reflection at the county board level comes as a directive from the Strategic Planning Steering Committee. He said he, himself, was directed to make recommendations on the board’s size and committee structure.

Schroeder said in his study of the matters, he found the typical board size among the Wisconsin counties is 19-23 members.

Schroeder said he would support cutting the board size from 30 to 15 members, but it is such a “politicial question” that he “didn’t think it would go anywhere.”

“So I am starting with the suggestion we reduce the board’s supervisory districts to 25 from 30 following the 2020 census,” Schroeder said.

There are windows within the coming years in which it would be possible for the citizenry of Jefferson County to petition to change the board size and could significantly reduce it with the very officials who have to conduct county business being helpless to do anything about it. This seemed to motivate some to consider making changes before their hands might be tied.

Schroeder said he has received more public questions and comment on the board’s 30-member size than any other issue since being elected in 2010.

“It was unanimous that 30 supervisory districts is too much,” he said.

Later in the meeting, however, supervisor from Watertown, Dan Herbst, asked for a show of hands from his colleagues regarding who may have been posed with the same question related to the county board’s size. Only four hands were raised.

Supervisors presented a number of interesting questions and observations throughout the meeting regarding county board size and committee makeup, but Jefferson County Clerk Barb Frank reminded the panel the purpose of Tuesday night’s discussion was not to vote on any board reductions or committee reconfigurations, but to illicit input on how to proceed.

“There was a lot of thought put into how we would present this tonight,” Frank said.

District 30 representative, Walt Christensen, said he was not in favor of reducing the board size. He said he has rarely had any constituents complain about it and when they have, they have had the situation explained to them and they see the need for a 30-member board. He also said he believes there would be no advantage to reducing the board’s size in terms of cost or decision-making efficiencies.

Supervisor Greg David of Watertown also said he is not in favor of reducing the board size, because 30 members offers a better opportunity for diversity of opinion. David said he is very concerned about the future of democracy in the U.S. and he thinks democracy remains relatively pure at the county government level.

Laura Payne of District 16 said she didn’t feel there was a compelling reason to reduce the board’s size at this point in time.

“Things are going well and this would be taking away from something that really impacts people,” Payne said. “I don’t understand why (a board reduction) is necessary. There is a lot to be done within the structure we have set up.”

Longtime supervisor Steve Nass said county officials are obligated by the county strategic plan to make examinations of board size and committee structure every so often.

Amy Rinard, who represents the Ixonia area, said she had also given the matter much thought and believes the county has “a very high-functioning board.” She said, however, she believes the board chamber has a diversity problem.

“To address this problem, we have to blow up the way we do business,” she said, noting the times that committees meet during the day may need to be changed to accommodate the working schedules of younger people and ideas such as “remote attendance” at meetings might have to be entertained.

“If you ever want to cause a riot at a meeting, just suggest changing the time that committee meets,” she said.

Rinard added that, in terms of diversity, the county needs to open its doors to more women, young people, working people and those of different ethnic backgrounds as its governmental representatives.

“So I just can’t get really excited about reducing board size right now,” she said.

John Kannard, who represents Sullivan, admitted its the board’s duty to review the matters, but echoed Walt Christensen’s initial sentiment, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Schroeder said valuable staff time is spent staffing committee meetings and recommended restructuring the county’s standing committees in the following manner:

-- Create an Executive and Intergovernmental Cooperation Committee with seven members.

-- Combine the Finance and Human Resources Committees into a finance and personnel committee with seven members.

-- Rename the law enforcement and emergency management committee the public safety committee and give it seven members.

-- Combine the buildings and grounds committee with the highway committee, give it seven members and call it the public works committee.

-- Combine the land and water conservation, planning and zoning, and solid waste and air quality committees, then give them seven members and call the panel the planning, land-use and natural resources committee.

-- Combined the fair park and parks committee, give it seven members and two public members, then call it the outdoor recreation and entertainment committee.

-- Give the UW-Extension Education Committee seven members.

-- Consider consolidating the board of health and the human services board into a health and human services board with size and composition aligned with state statutes.

“We do need changes to the committee over time,” Nass said. “They have to change. We should look at the committees every two years. Maybe we should look at the workload we put on these committees, not necessarily the subject matter they deal with.”

David said if the county combines these committees, the preparatory work for committee members as the meetings approach would be overwhelming. Christensen added that the meetings would grow too long and attention spans would wane.

Dwayne Morris of Watertown was credited with bringing the official resolution forward.

Citizen Anita Martin was the lone person to speak during public comment, saying she believes county governmental issues can be very complex, so she did not wish to see any downsizing. She also said she thought committees should remain separate.

Schroeder stressed he is pleased with the way the board and committees are performing and added Tuesday’s meeting was intended to “start a conversation” regarding the board size and committee configurations.

“Don’t get me wrong, we have a great board. I pinch myself when I think of this board and I strut into meetings around the state thinking I am the chairman of this Jefferson County Board. If it’s not broken it doesn’t need to be fixed, but why not consider being better yet. If we determine we are fine, then let’s leave it. But we should take a look at things. There’s a lot that goes into this and it takes time.”

The meeting closed with a standing ovation for the retiring Jefferson County Board Reporter Connie Freeberg.

Frank read a resolution in memory of Donald Reese of the board, who recently died.

All resolutions for the evening passed on voice or roll-call votes.