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Downsizing of Walworth County board may be under microscope

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Mike Heine
March 8, 2008
— As more Wisconsin county boards shrink, they may look for guidance from Walworth County, which after the April election will contract from 25 county board supervisors to 11.

“We are very interested to see how it shakes out,” said Jackson County Clerk Kyle Deno.


Jackson County was one of several in the state that rejected a downsizing referendum last April.


Douglas County rejected a referendum by just 18 votes last year but will look to reduce the board following the 2010 census, Clerk Sue Sandvick said.


“I’m assuming we will” look at Walworth County, Sandvick said. “I’m assuming we will take a look at all those counties that have downsized. That one (Walworth) would actually be a good one to take a look at.”


Center of attention


While much of the work of reducing the Walworth County Board remains, they county has made some preparations:


? The Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission sliced the county into 11 districts of nearly equal population.


? The current county board realigned its committee structure so 11 supervisors can easily slide into position.


? Department heads are preparing lessons to train supervisors about their duties and committee responsibilities.


“I bet people in different counties will look to us to see what we did,” Corporation Council Michael Cotter said. “I think that criteria that was developed can be used anywhere. It’s all the same concerns.”


Cotter has received calls from colleagues in other counties asking him about the process.


Mark O’Connell, executive director for the Wisconsin Counties Association, expected other counties to look at the Walworth County’s procedures and pitfalls.


No magic number


O’Connell said there’s no right way or wrong way to go about running a county government.


Big county boards. Small county boards. It doesn’t matter so long as democracy happens, he said.


“The right number for any county is if the county can get its business done, people can act civilly and people can abide by rules of order,” he said. “If people can do those things, it’s the right number, whether it’s 39 or seven.”


Wisconsin Act 100 allows county boards to downsize themselves or be downsized by voters through a referendum. A handful of Wisconsin counties chose the former, and a referendum forced the downsizing of the Walworth County Board. After the April 1 election, it will become one of the smallest county boards in the state.


Can it get the job done with 11 supervisors?


Will it work better than 25?


What are the pros and cons of having a big board or a small board?


O’Connell said that because of Act 100 “counties have looked at themselves and done a critical analysis about what number is appropriate. That’s a positive.”


Act 100 also has caused academics and researchers to start talking about changes to Wisconsin county government.


“Maybe we should allow a commission form, where there might be three, five, seven or nine (commissioners) who are possibly full-time with staff to run the counties,” O’Connell said. “Students of government are having conversations like that. Are they going to result in legislation? I don’t think in this session, but that’s a long-term view.


“This is tailor made to political scientists,” O’Connell said. “Text books are alive in our state. There will be studies done on this.


“We’ll have think tank groups looking at this and determining if it is good or bad. That may also determine if it becomes a trend or if it lays the groundwork for a possible change in the number of (government) structures or the options for structures.”


SIZE CHANGE


Other county boards in Wisconsin changing size include:


County Old size New size


Fond du Lac 36 18


Green Lake 21 19


Price 21 13


Waukesha 35 25


Waushara 21 11


Winnebago 38 36


Wood 38 19



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