Supervisors hope to tie up loose ends before end of term
Jan. 7 was the last date for candidates to file papers to run for the 2014-'16 Walworth County Board. Four seats on the 11-member board will be contested in the spring election, and at least two new supervisors will be joining the board. Jerry Grant, who has represented the Whitewater area since 1998, announced his retirement from the board late last year. The seat held by Tim Schiefelbein, which has been vacant since his death in December, will be filled in April's election, as well.
In addition to serving as the official start of the campaign season, the month of January, in every election year, marks a subtle change in the county board's workload. Supervisors are less apt to introduce new initiatives to their peers during this time, preferring to wait until the new board is seated. The board also tends to act with a greater sense of urgency on pending issues, particularly ones that members have spent a lot of time working on during the term.
Unlike city councils, which typically stagger the terms of council members, all of the Walworth County Board seats are up for re-election every two years. As a result, there is a tendency for supervisors to try to resolve outstanding issues before the end of the term. There are three reasons for this. First, there is often a genuine interest by board members not to saddle newly elected officials with complicated issues. In some cases, the board may have spent the majority of the term studying and debating a particular issue. If several members of the board lose an election or don't return, that knowledge will be lost and the learning process will need to start over. Additionally, like any of us who have worked on a lengthy project, there is a desire by officials to see the task through until the end. Finally, supervisors may want a particular outcome with respect to an issue. If they lose in the election, they will not have the ability to influence it.
Before I did any research for this column, I would have sworn that, historically, most of the board's big decisions were made in the January through March timeframe in election years. The county's decision to end the decades-long stalemate over building a new judicial center, for example, finally ended in February and March of 2002. Likewise, the board's vote to replace the nursing home with a new 120-bed facility took place at its last regular meeting in March 2004.
While I will stand by my initial assumption regarding election year decision-making, I was surprised to see that a number of important decisions were actually made at the start of new board terms. A resolution authorizing development of the White River State Trail, which had been a controversial topic at the time, was actually defeated and then approved, at a special meeting, by a newly elected board in 2002. The county's decision to replace its special needs school was, likewise, made at the beginning of a new term in 2006.
Earlier this month the board brought closure to one issue that had been on its plate for most of the past term by voting to exercise an option to purchase lands that will eventually comprise the White River Park. The possibility of acquiring parkland in the town of Lyons has been discussed by various county committees for nearly a decade. In the late fall of 2012, a deal began to take shape. The board spent 2013 working on the project, including soliciting public input and preparing an application for stewardship grant funding to offset half of the purchase price. Several more meetings were held to fine-tune hunting and trapping ordinance language; both activities must be allowed on the land as a condition of the grant. Exercising the option was the last hurdle to be cleared, and the land should be in county ownership by April.
A second issue that may be resolved by the end of the term involves a proposal by the county's health and human services department to gradually expand the scope of environmental health services offered by its health department. Under the department's plan, county workers would take over inspection of establishments such as restaurants, grocery stores and motels. The state currently conducts these inspections.
Supporters argue that the plan would improve public health by providing more frequent inspections. A number of supervisors have expressed concern regarding the financial impact of the plan on taxpayers and businesses and question whether the current state system is truly inadequate. You can make your views known at a public input session, which will be held Wednesday, March 19, at the Walworth County Government Center in Elkhorn. The meeting will begin at 1:15 p.m.
Regardless of whether the current board completes all of the items on its agenda, the new board will take over April 15. I will try to mention it again, but don't forget to vote.
A primary will be held in District 5 on Feb. 18. That district comprises areas in the town of Richmond, Darien, the town of Darien and the town of Delavan.
The spring election is on April 1. If you don't see any yard signs in March, don't assume that your district race is uncontested. With the winter we are having, it may just mean that there is too much frost to put signs in the ground.
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.