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On Tuesday, April 3, voters will decide if they want a smaller county board

Reporter Mike Heine asks what people think, both pro and con

Smaller is better

Why should the board be downsized to 11 members?

--"County government in Wisconsin needs to be more effective and more cost effective. With 25 people on the board, there are too many departments and too many committees and it makes county government too complex and inefficient... Board members who are not on important committees have very little input into county business." Bret Strong, chairman, Walworth County Citizens for Responsible Government

--"It's going to make for a more accountable board. It will be easier to keep an 11-member board informed. I think it'll make the board more accountable and it'll even make staff more accountable with fewer people to answer to. It's going to make staff jobs easier." Ann Lohrmann, county board chairwoman

--"Right now the board is in a state of flux. There's no direction. There's no guidance... It's like a shopping spree. Everyone is going off in their own direction. It needs some serious changes. I'm not saying 11 is the number, but you could do it with 11." Bill Norem, former county board chairman

--"I think we probably will see some efficiencies and maybe more accountability. I think the citizenry (opponents), all talk about non-representation, but we know nobody cares unless it's on their doorstep." Betty Felten, former county board supervisor

Keeping the board the same size will mean what for citizens?

--When you have 25 people, they can hide behind each other when it comes to voting. I think (the issue) is accountability. When you have 11 people (on the board), you have more citizens who will know who those 11 people are." Betty Felten, former county board supervisor

--"The status quo. The way I see our board, our board is laden with ineffective, incompetent people and they've proved that by the last (county) budget. They will prove that again with 12 to 15 percent increases for the next few years if they build the (new Lakeland) school that might be built." Bret Strong, chairman, Walworth County Citizens for Responsible Government

--"That these (6.5 percent tax levy) increases are OK with them and those kinds of increases are acceptable (to citizens). If citizens are OK with not looking at our programs and how we are doing business, then that's what they will have; the status quo." Ann Lohrmann, county board chairwoman

--More of the same. More confusion and more bad decisions." Bill Norem, former county board chairman

How can citizens be assured 11 board members will be the most responsible to taxpayers?

--"Nobody can guarantee that whatever board is elected is going to be responsible to taxpayers. From my perspective, with our current 25-member board, I don't think it could be any worse." Ann Lohrmann, county board chairwoman

--"With 25, it's easy to hide your vote and hide your incompetence or lack of due diligence. It's hard to hide it when there are only 11 of you." Bill Norem, former county board chairman

--"I believe with 11 we will have better control. They will be way more visible. They're going to have to answer to any bad deeds that they do." Bret Strong, chairman, Walworth County Citizens for Responsible Government

How will rural areas be represented with 11 members on the board?

--"Right now, out of 25 supervisors, only two of our supervisors are representing towns by themselves. Five represent cities and villages (solely). Eighteen represent a mix of urban and rural populations. Fifty-two percent of (county) people live in urban areas and 48 percent live in rural areas. I believe this is an opportunity to correct the poor representation of our current board to fairly represent the diverse population of our county." Bret Strong, chairman, Walworth County Citizens for Responsible Government

--"There are a few issues that might be different from towns to cities, but I don't think there are that many. I don't see that big of a difference on issues on how towns feel. I think it's mostly zoning. I think towns may come better off with 11 than they are right now." Ann Lohrmann, county board chairwoman

Should the downsizing question wait until the next census? Why or why not?

--"I don't see the advantage (to waiting). I don't see the tremendous costs that some board members would like you to believe there will be." Betty Felten, former county board supervisor

--"Actually, I think it is a good time to do it. In 2010, maybe we should add two or three or bring it to 15, or maybe make it smaller. We'll have the opportunity to fine tune the board at that time." Ann Lohrmann, county board chairwoman

Background: MIke Heine's series on the size of county boards elsewhere.

Introduction

Shall the board of supervisors of Walworth County be decreased from 25 members to 11 members?

It's a simple question Walworth County voters will see on their ballots April 3, but it has some important ramifications, proponents of both the status quo and downsizing argue.

Included here are statements both for and against a downsizing, as well as the opinion of the non-partisan Wisconsin Counties Association.

Before we get to that, here's a brief history about the downsizing debate in Walworth County.

The county board was 35 members from the mid 1970s until 2002, when it downsized itself to the current 25-member size. The last decision to downsize was made in 2000.

The Walworth County Citizens for Responsible Government chapter, a conservative government watchdog group, twice petitioned for a board downsizing. Signatures collected in the first attempt, calling for a reduction to 15 members, never reached the county clerk for certification.

A second petition, calling for a reduction to 11 members, received ballot certification in December.

Three county board members motioned for a reduction to 21 members in June, but it never reached the floor for a vote. If the board downsized itself, it would have negated any petitions for downsizing since state law allows for only one downsizing between censuses.

The next census and redistricting possibility would be after 2010 census figures are released.

~Mike Heine

Perspective

Wisconsin Counties Association Executive Director Mark O'Connell weighs in on board sizes and Wisconsin Act 100, the state law that allows county boards to downsize themselves or be downsized by a citizen petition and referendum.

What is the best board size for Walworth County, 25 or 11 supervisors?

"We don't actually have a position on what size a county board should be. Whatever the size, if the county board is respectful of one another and can get the business done with reasonable and rational thought processes going on, it's fine whether it's 39 (supervisors) or if it's seven."

What could happen if the board is reduced?

Without the ability to redraw ward lines, Walworth County could subject itself to violating federal Equal Representation laws if new district populations vary more than 10 percent across the board, O'Connell said.

"When you go from 25 to 11, it's going to be more difficult (to redraw districts) when you can't break wards up. When that happens, there is potential for a claim to be made that there is a violation of the one person, one vote principle. You may have disproportionate representation between districts."

How would rural vs. urban representation play out following a downsizing?

"Mathematically and practically speaking, it stands to reason that... you will have more urban representation than rural. Given the makeup of our towns and cities, you will likely have less town representation and more municipal representation. Not that that is necessarily good or bad. Decisions are made upon the personalities represented (on the board). I think you want to ensure as much diverse representation as you can."

Four counties face a downsizing referendum in April. Three had referendums passed in November. Two county boards downsized themselves already. Why has downsizing county boards come into the fray of Wisconsin politics?

"I think that in the past several years our government has taken a hit with the various scandals. Our sort of 'very shiny reputation' of clean government has been tarnished. In that regard, many citizens look at this (Wisconsin Act 100) as a direct opportunity to direct government... This is an opportunity for citizens, with the marking of a ballot, to truly change government structure."

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Stay the same

Why should the board be kept at 25 members?

--"I think 25 people represent the county better than 11. The people that are in my district certainly have a better chance of knowing who I am... I think 25 people bring a real wide scope to the board. If you look around, we have everything from people who work on farms to attorneys." Larry Hilbelink, county board supervisor

--"I think at this time it should be kept at 25. There's the organization plan that is in place that services the 25 supervisors and the 25 districts they represent. It doesn't make sense to do any adjustment without a census and the census is in 2010." David Weber, county board supervisor

--I think 11 is way too small. I just think the study by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance talking about the fact that bigger boards tend to save us money (compared to smaller boards) is a valid study. They're a highly respected group and I have no reason to doubt the validity of that." Dorothy Burwell, county board supervisor

--"When we go to these board meetings, you have a larger pool of views. More points of view are brought up and therefore you get more diversity of the issue and you get to study or think about the issue better. It's not so one-sided. It prevents special interest groups from getting control of the board." Jerry Grant, county board supervisor

A reduction to 11 members will mean what for citizens?

--"It reduces it down to the county being run by six people. Depending on who's on the board, if you have a group of strong individuals in the county who can manage to manipulate a few more people, those six can run the county." Larry Hilbelink, county board supervisor

--"Our impression is that 11 will ultimately create positions of full-time political jobs and then fill those jobs with full-time salaries and benefits. You'll also lose representation. Eleven board members will seek their biggest constituency and that will be the major population centers. You'll have lost any specific populations in rural areas... We don't want to reduce it to 11." David Weber, county board supervisor

--"If it goes to 11 I do not believe rural residents will be well served... Towns would be merged into more of a city population (thus not) being able to have representatives that have the town's best interest in mind." Dorothy Burwell, county board supervisor

How can citizens be assured 25 board members will be the most responsible to taxpayers?

--"Because the 25 supervisors in the respective 25 districts stand before citizens at voting forums and offer their resumes and their insight on how they are going to represent their constituents. Citizens for Responsible Government has not done that." David Weber, county board supervisor

--"The fact that the past few boards have been able to reduce the mill rate by 20 percent (since 2002) stands for itself. Either six or nine (super-majority) are going to decide what happens in your county. With 25 people, it's harder for special interests to get involved." Dorothy Burwell, county board supervisor

--"(Citizens) are going to be able to consistently have easy access to their county board member. If you're one of 4,000 (voters) and you're talking to (a supervisor), your opinion is going to have a certain level of value..." Jerry Grant, county board supervisor

How are rural areas represented with 25 members on the board?

--"While I view my position as representing everyone in Walworth County, ultimately my constituents are town people. That won't happen if there is only 11. I would hope that the 11 elected would feel the way I do, that they work for everybody, but if you get money to run for office, you might get it from city people rather than the town people." Dorothy Burwell, county board supervisor

--"I think they get better representation now... If you go down to 11 people, you're down to 11 districts. If you take the cities and villages, and you're looking at 10,000 people (per district), you're going to have a strong representation of the different cities and villages (on the board). Your rural population isn't as thick. Where are they going to fall? They're going to be a minority of each district, population-wise." Jerry Grant, county board supervisor

Should the downsizing question wait until the next census? Why or why not?

--"I think it should wait. To try and redistrict now is going to be a nightmare for county and municipal clerks... If we wait until census time, every municipality will have worked that into the budget." Dorothy Burwell, county board supervisor

-- "If we were downsized now, we will have to redistrict the county. There will be cost involved between now and next year and then we'd turn around in two years and have to do the same thing again. It's a terrible waste of money as far as taxpayers go. I can't believe that things are so bad now that a two-year wait wouldn't make a difference." Larry Hilbelink, county board supervisor

photo: Feel Well
View Feel Well,
Spring 2007

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