Why We Need a Part-Time County Board
For 125 years, the board was part-time. Then Tom Ament and company nudged it up to full-time. Why?
For more than 125 years, Milwaukee functioned fine with part-time county supervisors. The citizenry didn’t seem to have complaints of unresponsive service, and certainly didn’t clamor to make the position of board member a full-time one.
But around the time Tom Ament became board chair in 1976, the board began seeking ways to build its power and compensation. In 1978, board members voted to hire each of them a part-time assistant. Then-county supervisor Fred Tabak scoffed at the idea, questioning why part-time politicians would need assistants. He was hissed down by other members of the board.
The salary for supervisors had been creeping up in the 1970s but under Ament’s leadership, the big raise came in the early 1980s, as the salary rose from $17,104 in 1980 to $27, 471 in 1984. The position was now full time and the pay continued to rise. And soon the part-time assistants became full-time, with one full-time assistant for every board member.
Did this result in a better government for the people? I doubt if most citizens in this county would say so. In 2002, when I interviewed board members about this, they said the increase in the number of full-time supervisors made it harder to unify the board. Board members with little else to do could get drawn into plots and subplots. Department heads would complain about board members beating up on them and micro-managing departments.
Of course a number of supervisors still continued to work part time while drawing a full-time pay, a situation that continues to the present time. And most supervisors were very concerned about the benefits they and their relatives working in county government received, an attitude that culminated in passage of the infamous 2000 pension plan.
Ironically, even as supervisors were increasing their pay, their actual duties had began to decline. The county had added a county executive in 1960 and the state had just given the executive the power to create an appointed cabinet of officers in 1977. With the executive doing far more to manage county departments, there was much less for supervisors to do. The push by board members to become full-time and add assistants looks more like a response to the executive’s growing power under cabinet government. They wanted more power because he had more power. The difference was that the people of this county had voted to give the executive more power; they were never consulted regarding the board’s kingly assumption of power.
The end result was more bickering and power battles because both the executive and supervisors were essentially doing the same thing: supervising county departments. For all the talk about the board as “legislators,” and yes, this phrase is used at times in state law, board members don’t create law in the sense that a state legislature does. They pass ordinances that manage county departments. And much less of that was needed with the addition of a county executive.
The duties of the board shrank even more beginning in the 1990s, as the county eliminated general assistance and sold Doyne Hospital, and spun off the Milwaukee Public Museum as a private institution. Since then, the State of Wisconsin has taken over both the welfare and child foster care systems. There is much less county government to supervise now, but still plenty of pay going to supervisors.
Which brings us to the recent proposal by former county supervisor and current state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-West Allis) to have the state legislature cut the size of the county board budget and reduce the pay of supervisors to a part-time salary of $15,000. The response has been predictable: outrage from board members.
County board chair Marina Dimitrijevic has called it “a slap in the face to local control.” But the proposed bill calls for a county referendum on whether to change the supervisor position to part-time. In short, it doesn’t usurp local control, it assures it.
As I’ve noted, county voters were never consulted when the board promoted itself to full-time three decades ago. More recently, board members ignored calls from the public to significantly reduce its membership. In 2012, a dozen Milwaukee suburbs passed referendums by overwhelming margins calling for the board to significantly reduce its size. Board members responded by cutting just one position, dropping from 19 to 18, and appeared to do that only to get rid of a supervisor, Joe Rice, who had long argued board members should be paid a part-time salary.
Moreover, the idea that county government should only be subject to local control is constitutional nonsense. County government is purely a creation of the state legislature, created to operate as local administrator of state programs. Unlike city governments, which have considerable autonomy, county government has no power but that which the legislature expressly gives it. Thus, when the state decided to take over welfare and foster care systems, the county could do nothing to stop this. Similarly, the legislature passed laws to create the executive and can pass laws to change the nature of the county board.
Dimitrijevic and board members have also charged that Sanfelippo’s proposal is part of a “personal vendetta” by County Executive Chris Abele, who favors this proposal because he can’t get along with board members. And certainly there has been plenty of bickering between Abele and board members.
But there was also bickering between former county executive Scott Walker and board members, and between Ament and supervisors (at least during the one term where Robert Jackson served as board chair). Perhaps the high point in petty disputes was between former executive Dave Schulz and the board. The truth is there has always been bickering between board and executive because there simply isn’t enough for each to do. They both have the same job – supervising county departments — so disagreements are inevitable.
As a measure of just how over-governed Milwaukee County is, consider that it is twice the size of Dane County but spends seven times more for its county board. Milwaukee County is five times bigger than Racine’s but spends 16 times more on its county board.
If Abele’s concern was his inability to get along with board members, then you might expect him to propose a reduction in the size of the board, not a reduction to part-time. This proposal assures the same number of board members will still be around and can still issue quotes gleefully dumping on him. Indeed, once they are part-time they will have even less to lose when it comes to trashing the exec.
It’s worth noting that Abele had earlier proposed the legislature create the position of an independent county comptroller. Board members erupted in outrage to the proposal, but by now have gotten used to this and say it works very well. And by the way, the position doesn’t just limit the power of board members, but of the executive.
Dimitrijevic also argues that only the financially well-off will be able to run for county supervisor when it becomes a part-time job. But there’s no evidence that’s the case in the other 71 counties that have a part-time board. Or for the Milwaukee School Board. Or for the Milwaukee County Board itself during the 125 years that board members served part-time.
That leaves only the question of whether a part-time supervisor will be as responsive to constituent calls as a full-time one. I doubt that will be a problem. In the past, supervisors have admitted to me that they got very few calls from citizens. Board members would joke about a “wave of public opinion” when they received a few calls on an issue. People call their alderman first, their state legislator second and their county supervisor as an after-thought. (Ask yourself if you’ve ever made a constituent call to a supervisor; I haven’t made one such call in my entire life.)
Indeed, I think I can guarantee that supervisors will be responsive to constituent calls. Because if they don’t, they will soon find themselves defeated by a challenger.
As will Abele, if he runs afoul of the electorate. Ultimately local control resides in the voters, and they have the option of throwing Abele out every four years. And they are quite likely to have a powerful choice in Dimitrijevic, who seems to be biding her time to run against him. She has made a case that he is Scott “Walker lite” and too fiscally conservative, and she has held meetings in every supervisory district.
In short, there will be plenty of democracy to go around if we have a part-time board, just as there was for most of this county’s history. But what there won’t be is too much government, too much bickering, and too much time spent supervising county departments, a task that every other county in Wisconsin manages to do without spending so much of the taxpayers’ money.
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