County government runs best on knowledge, cooperation
In my last column, I reported on our county board's organizational meeting that was held last month and the ease with which supervisors chose their leaders. The consensus that our board now enjoys has not always been the case. Before 2008, it wasn't unusual for four or more supervisors to run for chair. Even in our board's most contentious days, however, the drama at our organizational meetings paled in comparison to what happened in Shawano County last month. Two hours before that board was set to elect its leaders, the Shawano County sheriff executed a search warrant of the home of one of its board members, Deb Noffke. Noffke's dad, Marlin, who also serves on the county board, complained to the Shawano Leader that the search was politically motivated, intended to keep him and his daughter from voting for board leaders. The search came back empty and both Noffkes apparently made it to the meeting.
One of our supervisors brought the Shawano County story to my attention. The article was timely, reinforcing an experience that I had earlier that week. At the request of the Wisconsin Department of Justice, I gave a short presentation to new jail administrators on making effective presentations to county board committees. I thought that I had pulled together a pretty good class, but I was not prepared for the number of questions that I was asked concerning strategies for dealing with relationships between sheriff's offices and county boards that have become completely dysfunctional. Reading media accounts about the conflict that exists between the Milwaukee County sheriff and the county board and county executive, I attributed the problems to big-city politics. Based on some of the comments that I heard at my seminar, however, I needed to revise my theory. Strained relationships between constitutional officers and county boards are not a function of population.
The organizational charts of Wisconsin counties are far more complicated than many corporations or even municipalities. In addition to an elected board, the Wisconsin Constitution (hence the name constitutional officers) provides for the direct election of numerous other officials. Constitutional officers in our county include four circuit court judges, the clerk of circuit court, district attorney, sheriff, coroner, register of deeds, treasurer and county clerk. With few exceptions over the years, our board has enjoyed productive and harmonious relationships with the county's constitutional officers.
Reasons for this include:
• Solid leaders. Reasonable and talented people can make almost any system work. Our county has been fortunate to have folks with both of these qualities serving as constitutional officers. Many of these leaders have risen through the ranks to serve in the top office they now hold. They are working managers who put public service head of personal ego.
• Respecting boundaries. A certain amount of conflict is built into the system of county government. The sheriff is responsible for keeping the peace, but the board has the power of the purse strings. Recognizing these different roles is a critical first step in building a good relationship. Constitutional officers work with the county board but do not work for the board. This may seem intuitive to some, but I find that members of the public are often confused on this point. I don't assume that newly elected supervisors automatically understand the statutory responsibilities of each office. We spend a fair amount of time at committee meetings educating supervisors about the different roles. Rather than creating conflict, I find that conflict is reduced when everyone knows his or her role in a decision.
• Providing a proper structure. The committee structure found in many Wisconsin counties tends to exacerbate conflict that is inherent in the system. County boards appoint many of their department heads and a typical structure places each department under the oversight of a committee. Boards have a tendency to try to fit every county operation under an oversight committee. Over time, the board begins to treat constitutional officers as it does its department heads when, in reality, the relationships have a different legal basis. A common description of the role of a county public safety committee might be to “oversee the sheriff's department.” The problem with this statement is that the sheriff's office is not a department and the board doesn't oversee its operations with the same degree of control that it may choose to exercise over its appointed department heads. The county board and its committees have an important and powerful role in public safety issues, including appropriating funds for the sheriff's operations. Committees, however, need to have clear mandates that respect the legal authority of constitutional officers.
Although constitutional offices in Walworth County go back more than 170 years, the relationship between these offices and the board is always evolving. An example of this took place in March when the board abolished the office of coroner upon the conclusion of the current term. State law permits the board to establish an appointed medical examiner in lieu of a coroner. Another law that clarifies powers of the county clerk was just signed by the governor. We will be discussing how to implement that legislation in upcoming months.
Listening to some of the war stories at the jail seminar that I attended, I was grateful to get back to Walworth County. Taxpayers are under enough pressure these days and deserve better than to have their hard-earned property tax dollars squandered in disputes among different branches of government. Citizens are best served when elected officials cooperate.
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.