Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

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?

By - Jan 9th, 2013 11:25 am

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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Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

25 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Why We Need a Part-Time County Board”

  1. Tyrell Track Master says:

    Another great article. This is one of those issues both republicans and democrats can agree on. Take care of this albatros once and for all!

  2. Danimal says:

    Its interesting that you take this position. Could the case for eliminating the County Executive not be made in nearly identical fashion? Bottom line is there is better representation by our elected officials when the ratio of constituents to representative is smallest. No county in the state has the same properties, social issues, or geographical challenges as Milwaukee. Other counties the size of Milwaukee in other states have full time county boards. I thought this site was created because the JS had tilted so far to the right…

  3. Dan Baker says:

    Great piece with a perspective I’ve not heard elsewhere. In fact I was 100% against until reading the history of the situation. One thing I will say: My supervisor, Peggy West, works tirelessly for our district. She is constantly on-the-job, constantly in the community and has been a strong advocate for our neighborhood. It may be that other supervisors are ‘part-time’ already, but Peggy most definitely is not. I have contacted her numerous times directly and always get a response. I will put this question to you: who is the community’s local political leader supposed to be? The Alderman? County Supervisor? Mayor? Who has the time to get to know a community such that the needs of individuals and small neighborhoods (ie. those with the least power) can be addressed? Thanks again for this article.

  4. Peter Zanghi says:

    Great insight, as always!

  5. Begonia says:

    YES! And while we’re at it, let’s make the state legislature a part-time position as well, like it used to be, made up of lawyers, farmers, and small businesspeople who have jobs and income to fall back on, should they lose their seat in the next election.

  6. Dave Reid says:

    @Dan Baker I was a Downtown Neighborhoods Association meeting the other night, and Sup. Stamper joined us. And someone made the comment it was the first time in well years a County Supervisor had shown up for a meeting like this, and unfortunately it was a very true statement (I believe it to be pretty true as I attend all sorts of neighborhood meetings and I couldn’t remember the last time either). But, and this is just my point of view, the answer is in the city people contact their Alderman. It is the city council that in my opinion, for the most part, impacts the daily lifes of Milwaukeeans.

  7. Dave Reid says:

    @Danimal “I thought this site was created because the JS had tilted so far to the right…” Nope. It isn’t about left or right. It is about Milwaukee.

  8. Sam says:

    The problem with a part time board is that it severely limits minority representation at local level and totally ignores the fact that Milwaukee County is much more complex than all other counties in Wisconsin. While Abele has stated he disagrees (although I don’t see how someone who has inherited millions can ever believe they have a right to have an opinion on everyone else’s financial means in the first place), there is a huge difference between volunteering to be a part-time supervisor in Ashland County e.g., with its 21 members representing a total population of 16,000 and being a supervisor in Milwaukee, where 19 supervisors represent 950,000 people. Other counties in Wisconsin, Dane included, don’t have the same complexity as Milwaukee County. They don’t run major transit systems, major health departments, large-scale parks systems, major jail systems, an international airport, etc etc.. They also have populations that more closely resemble the demographics of the state as a whole and are better represented in state gov’t.

    @Dave- I’ve been hearing a lot of this “first time in years that a county supervisor has shown up” thing lately. Could it be that we actually have a new county board that is interested in actively doing their job for the first time in a while, and that maybe we should actually give them a chance to try?

  9. Michael says:

    Maybe you just don’t see what good representation looks like. My county rep is always working, I see her at every community meeting and helping one-on-one with folks. She’s involved in the community because she has the time to be involved. If I have an opinion or gripe about the county, she’s always accessible. I don’t really know her dealings or personal politics, but I’d say she only seems to have a keen interest in her residents, and as soon as that job becomes part time, she’s going to have to have a different set of priorities. I’m guessing not everyone else is as responsive, Sanfelippo was one of those part-timers who happily accepted the full-time pay, but she makes a case for better representation by just being there and listening and making my community better.

  10. Dave Reid says:

    @Sam It is definitely true the new board is more visible than I can remember so that’s a good thing. But I’ve long since believed Milwaukee County should slowly be parted out, and redundancies eliminated of which there are plenty. Transit should be handled by an RTA, the parks possibly by a parks district, and so on. One thing I don’t think people recognize is the County board impacts budgets, but at the local level it is the city that really impacts local laws that impact residents. Here’s a question I’ve been kicking around since reading about this originally. Lets suppose Milwaukee County gets to keep that extra $5 million a year this measure would save, is better transit service worth it? Improved parks? just a thought

  11. Dan Cody says:

    @Sam: I’m curious why you think this proposal “limits minority representation at local level”? The districts will be the same, they’ll have the same number, and the same electorate will be tasked with choosing it’s elected Supervisor.

    How does simply lowering the pay limit minority representation? If that’s true, would increasing the pay INCREASE minority representation in Milwaukee County?

  12. John says:

    Rather than focus, or obsess, with the County Board and their pay, wouldn’t it be smarter to work towards a consodolited government and merge the county with the city like Indianapolis did? That is what everyone was talking about several years ago, but now the obsession seems to destroy the county board and put all the power in the County Execs hand.

  13. Tom W says:

    Keep the county board full time but eliminate the villages like mine (Whitefish Bay) and the Cities like West Allis, etc. and then have a County Government. Our over-governance is so apparent when I see WFB police and Shorewood Police and Glendale Police and Milwaukee Police but a North Shore Fire Department and a Milwaukee Fire Department. That’s a start. Now let’s move into the 21st Century and have a County-wide Government.

  14. Mary says:

    All I have to ask is: Where can I sign to show my support and how quick before I can put my yard sign up? Thanks for covering this, Bruce!

  15. John Pokrandt says:

    In my oppinion we finally have an excellent board and an excellent chair. This is purely political and it’s disgusting that one of the most part time supervisors is now trying to define his former colleagues rolls. Milwaukee County is not Ashland or Dane and we operate in similar manner to other counties around the country. This will limit the ability of most people to run because they have to work for a living. Beyond that the board is a counterweight to the county exec and weakening the institution concentrates power in the executive office.

  16. Stacy Moss says:


    NO !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    If one thinks we need a board at all (you know, the balance of power in a representative democracy), then we need a good board. If you get what you pay for, most of the time, then why not have LESS board members and pay them more money???????? We would still save money and be able to give them health insurance.

    Nine might be enough. That is good enough for the Supreme Court.

  17. George Mitchell says:

    Joe Sanfelippo and Joe Rice are 100% correct.

    A part time board would elevate the status of supervisors, who would spend most of their time establishing policy.

  18. getch says:

    Having a part time board would allow people like Will Allen, Juli Kaufmann, and numerous others, maybe Dave Reid, be able to run for office.

  19. George Mitchell says:

    danimal is correct….an argument could be made for eliminating the executive and having the board 100% accountable….but a much stronger argument could be made for having a real executive and a board that sets policy w/o meddling…..the worst of all worlds is the current mess

  20. Dave Reid says:

    @getch I appreciate the thought but I won’t be running for anything, UM keeps me very very busy!

  21. Bill Sell says:

    “Low pay” is low hanging fruit. The more difficult task is the part-time supervisor that represents their voters.

    Milwaukee County has folks in the wings waiting their opportunity, powerful interests who will be inclined to: (1) sell the airport; (2) lease the parks; (3) and hire the lowest possible wage earner to maintain our assets. Every step into privatization is lubricated when you dangle a few bucks in front of angry voters as the incentive to take each step. Stir the anger by NOT dropping taxes; milk the anger by lying about privatization.

    Nothing in San Felippo’s bill is devoted to outcomes like regional transit, or a parks district. Yet, these issues were vetted by County voters over 4 years ago; they still stand in the vestibule waiting to be called up (by someone in Madison).

    Parks and Transit are the glory of the County Board which led us into passing the referendum. Why is there talk of yet two other referenda: San Felippo’s, and a funding scheme for millionaire sports? Why is there any confusion in Madison about what County residents want?

  22. Sam says:

    @Dave: I see no problem with a metro gov’t like Louisville or Indy, as long as districts aren’t gerrymandered to limit city/inner-city representation. In fact, I think having the same gov’t entity handling all types of transportation and land-use planning could be very healthy. An unelected RTA/Parks board/ etc made up of a bunch of business execs is a very different thing.

    As far as the $5 million in savings goes, I think it is worth it to be able to contact my supervisor and have them respond in a timely manner to my concerns. And it’s a drop in the bucket in the total budget.

    @Dan Cody: Making a full-time position have part-time pay insures that only those with the financial means (or the ability to not sleep for days on end) can run. Like it or not, in Milwaukee there is a strong correlation between minority status and financial status. I would be willing to bet that if we reduced supervisor pay to $15,000 a year we would see a lot of the young, responsive, progressive voices we have right now (many of whom are people of color) replaced with older folks, many from the business community (which already runs Milwaukee behind the scenes). Either way, a majority of the supervisors we have now (not all) are doing a full time + job representing their constituents and deserve to be compensated for it.

  23. Sam says:

    PS. Apparently Sanfelippo’s bill also includes language to limit the ability to have referenda on any other county issues besides board size (in case the power politics of this weren’t obvious enough).

  24. Dohnal says:

    Great article Bruce, we finally agree on something.
    The board should have 25 members, the smaller districts the better so that people do not have to spend too much money and sell their souls to get elected. Parttime salary without any bennies.

  25. NealB says:

    This suggestion, that Milwauke County’s board should be reduced in size and pay is like Romney’s suggestion during the second debate with Obama last year, that our military is out-of-date because the number of ships in its Navy is smaller now than it was a hundred years ago. Times have changed.

    Quickly scanning the comments above, I see the point has already been made: in the State of Wisconsin, Milwaukee County is unique. Simple comparisons of “size” fail to describe the complexity of Milwaukee County, location of its largest truly urban municipality, the City of Milwaukee. Population density here is more than ten times than of Dane County; more than five times that of Racine. Further, it remains the hub of the state’s largest metropolitan region, center of the state’s industry, commerce, finance, transportation, shipping, information infrastructure, and culture. The amount of activity, and level of complexity in Milwaukee County demands more of its local leadership. In Wisconsin, Milwaukee County is the only one with urban ethnic diversity typical of the 21st century. It needs broader representation than others to meet the needs of its diverse constituencies. It requires well-qualified, professional staff to adequately review its policies and the effectiveness of their implementation. In short, it’s not a part time job. Those that suggest it is are ignorant of the many ways in which Milwaukee County is unique in the State, or they’re lying when they imply they have its best interests at heart.

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