As assistant counsel with the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, Daniel Olson spent his days providing guidance to local government attorneys.
From his office in Madison, Olson took anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 phone calls each year from city and village lawyers throughout the state.
Olson had been in their shoes before and knew the territory. From 1994 to 2001, he worked as an assistant attorney for Barron and Portage counties, as well as the city of Green Bay.
This year, after 17 years with the League, Olson decided he wanted to get back into government work himself. Being a consultant wasn’t doing it for him anymore.
“You didn’t get to see the end result of whatever guidance you were able to provide,” he said, adding that he has always been drawn to public service. “I missed the energy that you don’t get when you’re sort of separated from an individual community.”
Olson applied to become Sauk County corporation counsel and was hired in June. He replaced Todd Liebman, who retired in September 2017 after 23 years with the county.
As one of two attorneys with the League, Olson dabbled in just about every area of government law. His specialties included land use, zoning, ethics, public records and open meetings law.
Franklin City Attorney Jesse Wesolowski said he often turned to Olson for advice on complex legal matters, and was never disappointed.
“I can say that every single time, Dan had the answer,” Wesolowski said, describing Olson as an intelligent, friendly and hardworking individual with a well-rounded legal background. “He’s a man for all seasons.”
A 1993 University of Wisconsin Law School graduate, Olson also holds a master’s degree in public policy administration from UW’s La Follette School of Public Affairs. He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science and history from the University of Texas-San Antonio in 1989.
League of Wisconsin Municipalities Legal Counsel Claire Silverman said Olson was a great resource for local government officials during his time there.
“He also was a particularly effective advocate for municipal interests,” she said, noting that Olson authored many important briefs on the League’s behalf in cases that went before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals and Wisconsin Supreme Court.
The League was not a litigant in most cases in which it became involved, but had a strong interest in the outcome as an advocate for cities and villages. Olson filed what are known as amicus briefs.
One such case involved a dispute between the city of Madison and a billboard company. The company did not like the fact that a bicycle bridge the city constructed over the Beltline in 2013 blocked the view of its billboard.
Adams Outdoor Advertising sued the city, arguing the government had illegally taken its property and should provide compensation.
“That, obviously, if successful, would have substantial monetary impacts on cities and villages,” Olson said, adding that compensating individuals for obstructed views could put a financial hurt on local governments. “It was a pretty far-reaching, potentially, argument that the billboard company was making.”
In June, the Wisconsin Supreme Court sided with the city of Madison — and the League — in a 4-3 decision. The majority concluded that visibility of private property from a public road is not a right that falls within the court’s jurisdiction to protect.
Over his 25 years as an attorney, Olson has been on the winning side of five unanimous Wisconsin Supreme Court rulings. In several instances, he said, the court’s decisions have included language borrowed from arguments that he presented.
Olson takes over as chief legal counsel during a period of turmoil in county government that has included high-profile departures and rancor among a bitterly divided Sauk County Board.
The county attorney’s office has been swept up in some of that controversy, as several supervisors who previously were in the minority accused Olson’s predecessor of providing legal cover to the majority faction.
Control flipped after an April election that saw 12 new supervisors seated, and Olson was the candidate chosen by a new progressive majority.
Allies of former Board Chairman Marty Krueger — who are now in the minority — and several others voted against Olson’s appointment at the June meeting, arguing he lacked the leadership experience necessary to head up the county’s legal office.
They sought the appointment of Deb O’Rourke, an assistant attorney who took over following Liebman’s departure last year, saying she had demonstrated her abilities after nine months as interim corporation counsel.
Others said although O’Rourke, a former criminal defense attorney who joined the legal office in 2016, had served the county well, Olson’s qualifications were more desirable because he had spent his entire career in local government law. Olson was appointed by an 18-11 vote, with two supervisors not in attendance.
Olson said he won’t allow personal allegiances or politics to impact his work, and is committed to providing legal guidance based on facts, the law, and sound legal analysis. He was complimentary of the county employees he has worked with so far.
“I’m very impressed by the quality of the staff that I have regular contact with here,” Olson said. “They’re all very dedicated professionals. They know what they’re doing. That’s good. That makes my job a little bit easier.”