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Monday, March 31, 2008

Walworth County may be under microscope

By Mike Heine/The Week

There is no right or wrong size for a county board.

Big county boards. Small county boards. It doesn't matter, so long as democracy happens, said Mark O'Connell, executive director for the Wisconsin Counties Association.

"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 for county boards to downsize themselves or be downsized by citizen referendums.

A handful of Wisconsin Counties chose the former, and a referendum downsized Walworth County from 25 to 11 supervisors. That change will take effect after the April 1 election.

A number of other Wisconsin counties are still contemplating a change and may look to Walworth County as an example of how a smaller board works.

It will become one of the smallest boards in the state.

Can it get the job done with 11 supervisors? Did it work better with 25? What are the pros and cons of having a big board or a small board?

"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 survived a downsizing referendum last April.

Supervisors in Douglas County survived 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 the real work of a reduced county board has yet to take place, much work went into preparing the board for 11 supervisors.

The Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission redistricted the county into 11 districts of nearly equal population using ward boundaries and census data from 2000.

The current county board took steps to realign its committee structures so 11 supervisors can easily slide into those positions.

Department heads are also preparing training lessons for supervisors to let them know of their duties and responsibilities on certain committees.

"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 already received calls from colleagues in other counties asking him about the process.

O'Connell expected other counties to look at Walworth County and analyze its procedures and pitfalls along the way. They will continue looking into the future.

"It's caused one positive," O'Connell said of Act 100. "Counties have looked at themselves and done a critical analysis about what number is appropriate. That's a positive."

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

"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.

"I would not say we're on the verge of a trend, but it's definitely a pocket issue where the issue is hot."

The idea was hot in Walworth County and other parts of the state and what they do from here on out will put it under the microscope.

"This is tailor-made to political scientists," O'Connell said. "Textbooks 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."

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