Both large and small boards can be effective, experts say

By Mike Heine/The Week

(Published Feb. 2, 2007, 9:38 a.m.)

There's a saying that, "Everything's bigger in Texas."

Well, take a look at the sizes of county boards throughout the United States and that theory is easily debunked.

Most counties in the Lone Star state have five or fewer members. That's true in a lot of other states, too. But here in Wisconsin, most county boards have their number of county supervisors reaching into double-digits.

Both large and small county boards work, experts say.

With a looming referendum that will ask voters if they'd prefer an 11-member Walworth County Board vs. a 25-member board, The Week took a look at what made Wisconsin's county governments larger than most and how they compare to states on the opposite end of the spectrum.


A national look

According to statistics from the National Association of Counties, Wisconsin has nine of the nation's 12 largest counties when it comes to board size. Those include Marathon (39), Wood (38), Winnebago (38), Dane (38), Dodge (36), Fond du Lac (36), Outagamie (36), LaCrosse (35) and Sheboygan (34).

The largest county board is in New York City (52). Davidson County, Tenn., has 40 on its board. New York's Albany County and Dutchess County have 38 and 35 board members, respectively.

Of the ranking Wisconsin counties, Fond du Lac and Wood will reduce by half come 2008 and Winnebago will drop to 36 after reductions were made.

A list of United States counties, provided by the association, shows an average board size of about six members. Wisconsin's average is a little more than 24 supervisors.

The most common county board size in the country is three members with 1,060 counties. The next is five members with 1,028 counties. Georgia is the only state to allow counties to have one supervisor.

Wisconsin's 72 counties range in size from seven to 38 members. The seven-member Menominee County board is actually a six-member town board but with one additional elected position. Menominee County has one town and is a Native American Indian reservation.

The most popular county board size in Wisconsin is 21 members, 13 of which have that many.


Boards are bigger in Wisconsin

The roots of Wisconsin's bigger boards extend back to when the earliest European settlers arrived.

Wisconsin's larger boards, in which each supervisor represents a smaller number of citizens, reflects a Wisconsin tradition of keeping local government "close to the people," according to the state Legislative Reference Bureau.

"It's kind of a tradition Wisconsin has to allow as much local input as possible," said Craig Thompson, Wisconsin Counties Association legislative director. "It's why we have larger boards that represent smaller geographic areas so that there is more input from each locale."

When Wisconsin became a state in 1848 two general forms of county government were already in place-a "commissioner" style and a "supervisor" style.

A commissioner style had generally smaller boards that oversaw most local government services. Commissioners were elected at large. It was popular in many Midwestern and Eastern states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, according to a UW-Extension Local Government Center fact sheet.

Other counties used the supervisor style and had larger county boards, usually made up designated town board members. Modeled after New York state, these county boards oversaw state administrative services such as courts, tax collection and sheriff's departments leaving cities, towns and villages to oversee purely local services including road maintenance, building inspection and fire protection, according to the fact sheet.

About 1870, a series of court decisions decided the supervisor system of government become standard, which isn't surprising since many Wisconsin settlers came from the New York area via the Erie Canal and Great Lakes Waterway, according to the Wisconsin Counties Association.

New York still joins Wisconsin as a state with larger-than-average county boards, many of which are in the teens and twenties. Illinois and Tennessee also have larger boards.


What's best?

Proponents of smaller county boards argue they promote legislative efficiency and encourage more contested elections, according to the Reference Bureau. Supporters of larger boards feel they better represent constituents and having more supervisors means more difficulty for special interests to influence government, according to the bureau.

"(Large boards) work very effectively for the people who have them," said Jacqueline Byers, National Association of Counties director of research. "What's interesting is some counties have only three people and that works for them."

The Georgia counties that have only one board member seem to work, too, Byers said.

"Yours are huge," Byers said of Wisconsin's boards. "You want them to be very representative."

With larger boards, "I think you've got a better chance at all types of communities in the county being represented," Thompson said. "One of the dangers when you go to a smaller board is, 'will you have enough rural representation or will the larger cities have a dominant voice on the board?'"

More board members means a more parliamentary system of government where the board oversees the executive or administrator who oversees daily operations. Supervisors on smaller county boards do both legislative and administrative functions, Byers said. Some might even be the head of multiple departments.

Larger boards can run into problems with communication and getting all supervisors "on the same page," said Harry Hayes, local government projects manager at the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

"Making sure everyone has the same level of understanding of what the issue is I imagine becomes more difficult," he said.

Also, being too close to the people and representing too small a population can cause some supervisors to not look out for the bigger picture of the county as a whole, Hayes said.


What our neighbor's do

Iowa has limited its county board sizes to three or five members, a law that has existed close to a century, said Bill Peterson, executive director for the Iowa State Association of Counties.

Supervisors have more day-to-day responsibilities than do Wisconsin supervisors, Peterson said.

With more commissions and committees, most supervisors in Iowa are paid as if their work is a part-time or full-time job, Peterson said. Salaries range from $20,000 to $100,000 annually with supervisors in more populous counties earning more.

Minnesota counties have five or seven supervisors who make between $11,000 to nearly $87,000 annually, according to the Wisconsin Counties Association.

Wisconsin's supervisors, except Milwaukee County's full-time supervisors, are paid relatively meager salaries. With more supervisors to assign to committees and commissions, the workload is less here. Walworth County supervisors, for instance, receive $6,000 annually. The chair gets $12,000. All salaries total $156,000.

Wright County, Minn., has a population similar to Walworth County, about 100,000. Wright County's five supervisors get $33,092 annually, a combined total of $165,460, according to the Wisconsin Counties Association.

Peterson sees how both kinds of boards-large and small-are successful.

"Frankly, it depends on the people. What I observe in Iowa, whether it's three- or five- member boards, the success of that board is not determined by the number. It's the individuals that get elected to the positions and whether or not they have a commitment to putting the good of the citizens and organization ahead of their individual goals or objectives," Peterson said.

It's important, however, for supervisors to get along and put their personal differences aside to effectively operate as a group, Peterson added.

Hayes agreed.

"I think the most important aspect is not the size (of the board), but who it is that's elected," Hayes said.

Who represents us? A look at county board demographics

Historical roots of Government.

The long-used "town system" of government.

The basics.

Links to documents used to research this story.



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