Schiefelbein served county with a studied dedication
The atmosphere at our last county board meeting was somber for December, or for any other month, as far as that goes. The light from a single candle glowed on the desk of Supervisor Tim Schiefelbein, who passed away Dec. 4.
Although Tim was only in his first term on the board, he had a long association with the county. Before being elected to the board, Tim served as a deputy sheriff for 29 years, retiring at the rank of captain. He made good use of his brief retirement, volunteering at Vocational Industries, the Walworth County Alliance for Children or just visiting lonely folks at area nursing homes.
Even though I had worked with Tim for many years, I really didn't get to know him until he was elected to serve the county's sixth supervisory district seat in 2012. District 6 represents the city of Elkhorn and portions of the town of Sugar Creek. Tim took his office seriously and, as a result, I spent a fair amount of time with him over the past 18 months.
Tim was a quick study and always wanted to learn more. It was not unusual for Tim to stay an hour or more after meetings to critique what had just happened and to ask questions about county operations. With his extensive knowledge of law enforcement, I learned a lot from him, as well, and came to look forward to our discussions. Tim had been battling some serious health conditions for the past several years. His desire to accumulate knowledge, however, was so strong that even on days that I knew he wasn't feeling well, he would not only attend his assigned meetings, but stay to watch other meetings, as well.
The transition from employee to supervisor is a difficult one to make. It can be hard for a newly elected official to leave the comfort zone of the department for which he or she formerly worked and not to carry biases and friendships forward to the new position. Tim was well on his way to making this transition. A key reason why he was successful in making the switch was because of his disciplined thought process. I was never quite sure whether this was the result of his extensive martial arts training or years of police work, but Tim would constantly ask himself, sometimes out loud, whether he was looking at each issue objectively, with the best interests of his constituents in mind.
Recalling some of the attributes that Tim brought to the job got me thinking about a project on which he and his fellow board members had been working. Earlier this year the board's executive committee committed to drafting job descriptions for the positions of county board chair, vice chair and supervisor. Any job description that would ultimately be created would be largely advisory in nature. The electorate ultimately decides whether a supervisor should stay in office. I thought the exercise was worthwhile, however, as job descriptions will help newly elected supervisors prepare for their new positions and provide longer-tenured supervisors with a way to share key attributes that have helped them succeed over the years. The project is still ongoing. I hope a few of the attributes that Tim brought to the job make it into the final position descriptions, including:
• Committing the time: To be effective, a supervisor needs to know what is happening both in county government and in his or her district. Attending board and committee meetings represents a significant time commitment, as does reading agenda packets to be fully prepared for meetings. Equally important is the time spent learning what constituents are thinking by attending community events and talking with them on the phone.
• Asking questions: It's great to have support, and good supervisors always are there to support departments when the “chips are down.” Everyone needs a boss, however, including yours truly. Effective supervisors ask the tough questions and put managers to their proof on budget and policy issues.
• Keeping a broad focus: The county offers a diverse range of services. With an 11-member board, it isn't possible for every supervisor to serve only on committees that interest them the most. An effective board member sometimes needs to step out of his or her comfort zone, from time to time, and learn about an area of county government with which they may be less familiar.
One of the occupational hazards of my job is that, for a variety of reasons, supervisors tend to be older than the general population. As a result, I get to work with a lot of interesting people, but I also go to more than my share of funerals. Sitting board members pass away, from time to time; the last was Lake Geneva's Robert Shepstone in 2003. At 55 years of age, Tim left us far too soon.
I can almost hear Tim's voice now, barely audible over the static on his cell phone. For some reason, his cell reception was always terrible, necessitating him to hold phone conversations on his porch or, on a really bad day, driving to my office to talk in person. Tim would want to know what our options are. When will his seat be filled? The board can fill your seat now, Tim, or wait until the next election in April. I know you want us to move on, and we will, but no one is quite ready to talk about your replacement just yet. Right now, we need a little time to grieve.
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.