Board out to spread the word against downsizing

Will a public relations effort by Walworth County supervisors save the Walworth County Board from a possible downsizing?

(Published Jan. 11, 2007, 5:00 p.m.)

By Mike Heine/The Week

Supervisor Larry Hilbelink thinks so. He called a special meeting that was held Tuesday night to see how his peers felt about banding together to somehow spread the word that the board should not be downsized from 25 to 11 members.

"I was interested in getting some kind of formulated plan so board members have some direction of where to go and what to do," Hilbelink said after the meeting, which he feels went really well.

"Hopefully there were ideas that came out that people haven't thought of that they're now thinking of.

"I thought there were some great ideas that came up. Everyone went away with this road map so if we're asked questions (now) everyone is giving the same answers."

With a 22-3 vote--supervisors Ann Lohrmann, Rick Stacey and Robert Arnold voted 'no'--the board adopted a position letter written by supervisors Kathy Ingersoll, Joyce Ketchpaw and Nancy Russell that lists accomplishments of the 25-member board.

The letter includes such "facts" as the board approving department consolidations, reducing county staff, downsizing the number of residents in the county-run nursing home, formulating a plan to move special education services back to the local school districts, updating county infrastructure and more.

Hilbelink said the letter would help supervisors collectively give constituents "the information that they need to make a decision that's rational."

Others in attendance called the meeting useless and said that voters will decide on the board's size without the collaborative effort.

"I was in your chair at one time. I never spent my time trying to figure out how I'm going to save my job," said former supervisor O'Dell Gigante. "The electors have the word. You've wasted about an hour-and-a-half of taxpayers' money trying to figure out how you can put things together to save 14 positions. It doesn't make any sense."

"They're digging themselves a bigger hole. What are they afraid of," said Betty Felten, also a former supervisor.

Some supervisors say they're not afraid of anything and welcome voters to decide on the future of the board. The point of the special meeting was to present the facts of what a 25-member board has accomplished and can continue to accomplish, said Supervisor Dorothy Burwell.

"I'm trying to protect my constituents, and when I say my constituents, I'm saying all of Walworth County so that they can get the facts," she said. "All of the facts, not half-truths, so they can get the facts of what an 11-member board will be like. Six members will control Walworth County in most instances (as a majority). The less people you have making decisions for you, the less representation you have."

The decision was for supervisors to use the position letter as guidance as individuals, not as a collective group, Hilbelink said.

Doing so as a group, and promoting an effort to influence a campaign, would require the board to register with the county clerk as a special interest group or political action committee. Any meeting of more than 13 board members at once would have to be posted to comply with open meetings laws, Administrator David Bretl said.

Individually, supervisors can campaign for an issue one way or another. However, if they spend more than $25 for their cause they too must register in accordance with Wisconsin's campaign finance laws.

If discussions at the meeting are any indication, at least some supervisors are more likely, now, to be more visible in the public promoting the board's current size or a less drastic downsizing.

Some of the suggestions were talking to local civic and church groups, placing ads in local newspapers, writing letters to newspaper editors, developing press releases, conducting direct mailings and perhaps creating yard signs.

Supervisor Joyce Ketchpaw thought it best for supervisors to go at it alone instead of as a larger group.

"We can talk to our community and we have the responsibility to do that without doing overkill," she said.

Supervisor Bob Arnold said he'd go his own way, which is in a different direction than a majority of his colleagues.

"If we're going to advertise this as an action of the board, I want my name to be listed as not voting for it and being in favor of an 11-member board, period," he said. "I don't want my constituents to think I'm all for 25 people on the board when I'm not."

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