Historical roots of Government.

Compiled b y Mike Heine/The Week

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

Since the nation's earliest settlers came across the Atlantic Ocean and on through today, Americans have had a thirst to be close to their government.

The bond stretches from small decision-making bodies, such as school boards, up through the leaders of Congress and the presidency.

County governments fall in the middle of the spectrum and are no exception to the desires of the public.

A 19th century rule decreed that a county seat should be within a day's buggy ride for every citizen, according to a history of counties prepared by the National Association of Counties. Air travelers today can still detect the regular intervals of cities and towns that were laid out when Thomas Jefferson sent surveyors west through the Louisiana Territory.

County governments today are arguably the most flexible, locally responsive and creative governments in the United States, according to the association.

They are the most diverse and vary greatly in size, populations, geography and governmental structure.


Counties across the sea

Historical roots of counties can be traced back to English shires, which were divisions of land ruled by an earl. The shires an earl ran were a way for the king to maintain control of distant lands.

Shires became counties in 1066 with the Norman Conquest of England and earls lost most of their political power to the sheriff.

Counties continued to evolve and authority was later divided among county officers under King Edward III in the 1300s. Positions such as coroner and constable also shared power with the sheriff.

Early English settlers brought such concepts to America, but altered them in many ways, according to the association.

The South, with its huge plantations and geographical area, adopted a form similar to the English county as a principal form of government.

The country's firsts county government formed in 1634 at James City, Va. The commonwealth soon had eight counties.

In New England, land wasn't as plentiful, the climate was harsher and people lived nearer each other, leading to villages, towns and cities emerging as the more important forms of government.

While counties still formed in the northern colonies, cities and towns performed many of the services that counties conducted in the south, according to the association.


New systems develop

Variations of county governments began to appear in the north, which then spread throughout the country.

William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, favored county governments and developed three counties in 1682. County commissioners were elected at large, which concentrated the political power at the county level. Boards were usually small.

In New York and New Jersey, county commissioners were elected by ward and town supervisors were often automatically members of the county's government.

Early Wisconsin History

Both forms existed in the Wisconsin Territory, according to the Wisconsin Counties Association.

After Wisconsin became a state, a series of court decisions made the New York supervisory form official, which isn't surprising since many Wisconsin settlers came from New York via the Erie Canal and Great Lakes waterway. The courts figured counties would differ slightly, but expected "practical uniformity void of needless diversity," according to the Wisconsin Counties Association.

Wisconsin counties are viewed as an arm of state government because counties carry out and enforce certain state laws and functions. For example, county sheriffs apprehend law breakers, county clerks manage state elections and registers of deeds keep state records, such as birth and death certificates, marriage licenses and property deeds, according to the Wisconsin Counties Association.



Timeline of Wisconsin Counties

(From the Wisconsin Counties Association)

1818-Wisconsin becomes part of Michigan Territory. Three counties are organized-Brown County in the east, Crawford County in the west and Michilimackinac County in the north.

1823-Counties are made Judicial Districts by Congress and Brown County holds first court proceeding a year later.

1829-Iowa County is created in southwest Wisconsin due to increased population there.

1834-Milwaukee County becomes the fifth county.

1836-Wisconsin Territory is created along with 15 new counties-Calumet, Dane, Dodge, Fond du Lac, Grant, Green, Jefferson, Manitowoc, Marquette, Portage, Racine, Rock, Sheboygan, Walworth and Washington.

1836-1901-Counties continue to grow in number to 71.

1961-Menominee County becomes Wisconsin's 72nd county.


Recent Developments

1970s-Counties are given narrow power to control several elements of county board functioning or "self-organizing." Counties are permitted to pass ordinances declaring themselves self-organized for the purpose of setting board offices and compensation, establishing staggered supervisory terms and filling vacancies in supervisory districts.

1980s-Counties are granted "administrative home rule," giving them greater control over organizing their administrative departments. Home rule authority has allowed counties to expand gradually as a regional government in such areas as recycling, water quality management, transportation planning and zoning review.

Today-Counties do not have constitutional home rule authority as cities and villages do. This means that while cities and villages can basically undertake anything that is not prohibited by statues or the constitution, counties can only undertake a function that is expressly allowed for or mandated by statues or the constitution. A county's main function is still to be the administrative arm of state government.


Executive and administrative options

County Executive-An elected position to administer and monitor county departments and exercise other specified powers. Milwaukee County is mandated to have an executive. All counties have option to create an executive position regardless of size. Executives have veto power over the county board, which can only be defeated by a two-thirds vote.

County Administrator-An appointed position that is responsible for the annual budget, oversight of county departments and reporting to the county board. Walworth County uses this model.

Administrative Coordinator-Also an appointed position that is "responsible for coordinating all administrative and management functions of the county government not otherwise vested by law in boards or commissions, or in elected officers." Generally less power than an executive or administrator.


Other elected officials

Besides the county board, Wisconsin residents, by law, elect the following county offices-clerk, treasurer, sheriff, clerk of circuit court, register of deeds, coroner, elected surveyor and district attorney. Positions are elected in partisan, general elections.


Common county departments

* Clerk of circuit court

* Coroner/medical examiner

* County clerk

* County treasurer

* Culture, recreation, education, housing

* District attorney

* Forestry

* Health and Human Services

* Judiciary

* Land conservation

* Land information, planning, zoning

* Register of deeds

* Sanitation/solid waste

* Sheriff

* Transportation

* UW-Extension

Both large and small boards can be effective, experts say

Who represents us? A look at county board demographics

The long-used "town system" of government.

The basics.

Links to documents used to research this story.



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