JUNEAU — At least one Dodge County Board member is questioning how things get done in the county, and whether a county administrator is the best person for the job.
That’s why Jeff Schmitt proposed holding an advisory referendum on the matter — an idea the county board’s Executive Committee rejected Tuesday morning by taking no action.
Jon Hochkammer, outreach manager of the Wisconsin Counties Association, outlined the various forms of county leadership. The choices include county executive — the most powerful position, elected for four years by popular vote; county administrator — hired by the county board based on qualifications and experience (the current scenario in Dodge County); and an administrative coordinator — whose powers and duties are based on board approval and authority.
Each position has its own list of responsibilities and powers. State statutes require counties with more than 750,000 residents to have an elected county executive; there are 11 counties that fit that bill. Dodge County is among 28 counties run by administrators, and the remaining 33 have an administrative coordinator (a position often handled by a county board chair or a country clerk).
Jim Mielke has been the Dodge County administrator for nearly 10 years, succeeding Administrative Coordinator Garland Lichtenberg, who served in that capacity for 28 years before retiring.
There are subtle, but substantial variations in each of the positions, including the fact that a county executive may only be removed from office by losing an election or by action of the governor. County executives may veto any county board action, although that veto may be overridden by a two-thirds vote of the board.
Both executives and administrators may fire department heads, subject to board approval. An administrative coordinator may not. Executive and administrators may make appointments to county committees, subject to board approval. An administrative coordinator may not.
County administrators are the chief administrative officers, coordinating and directing all administrative functions. They are answerable to the county board.
Hochkammer said that educating the public about the executive options is a tough sell, as is educating them about many of the complex issues facing counties.
“We (as county boards) impact more people on a daily basis than any other level of government by far, but what’s really unfortunate is the general public doesn’t have any idea what we do,” Hochkammer said. “That’s the challenge — but when you get really deep into some of these details, such as the differences between the three kinds of county executive leaders, it is an extremely difficult challenge to educate the public on these types of issues.”
Schmitt disagreed, suggesting members of the public will go out of their ways to understand the issues.
“The biggest issue I see here is that we should give the electors the right to choose,” he said. “We should have the right to elect our officials — I don’t care if it’s the town dog catcher. I disagree with the idea that we have to educate the public. It’s the electors’ duty to be informed. If we are educating them, it often becomes a campaign to coerce. I think people can investigate, on their own, and decide how it affects their communities. An advisory referendum is presenting the choice to them.”
“I don’t agree that the public, as a whole, has a voice in the kind of administration we chose,” board member Kira Sheahan-Mallow said. “That’s what we have the county board for. If we elect a county executive, we could have a person with a lot of power and not much qualification. We have a lot of examples close to home and a lot of damage can be done in one election cycle. I don’t agree that people will go out of their way to get informed.”
There can only be two choices on a referendum questions as well, making the three options a logistical challenge.
“I don’t think there’s enough time, or enough interest in changing what we have,” board member Donna Maly said. “I think we as a board have the responsibility to choose our chief administrator as a person who meets the qualifications, is a person we have vetted and who will be a good fit for the county. I don’t think making a change would benefit us in any way.”
It remains to be seen whether Schmitt will propose the referendum question directly to the county board for any action.
“We (as county boards) impact more people on a daily basis than any other level of government by far, but what’s really unfortunate is the general public doesn’t have any idea what we do. That’s the challenge — but when you get really deep into some of these details, such as the differences between the three kinds of county executive leaders, it is an extremely difficult challenge to educate the public on these types of issues.” Jon Hochkammer, Wisconsin Counties Association