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Loss of local control a hot topic at meeting
Local Control Tara Johnson
LACROSSE COUNTY BOARD Chairperson Tara Johnson holds the Vernon County Democratic Partys White Paper on Local Control, as she makes a point during the meeting in Viroqua on April 24.

DRIFTLESS - Damage in delivery of essential services by local government due to federal and state erosion of local control was the topic of discussion for about 50 participants at the American Legion Taphouse 138 in Viroqua on Tuesday, April 24.

The panel of speakers on the topic included Dennis Brault, Chairperson of the Vernon County Board; Tara Johnson, Chairperson of the LaCrosse County Board; and Matt Rothschild, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. The audience included concerned citizens, county board supervisors, as well as supervisors from numerous townships.

The main point all of the speakers made is that in recent years, the federal and state government have passed laws and budgets that increasingly restrict local control. Restriction of local control or ‘home rule,’ and ‘unfunded mandates’ has resulted in county and township boards experiencing ever-increasing responsibilities with ever-decreasing resources.

Local democracy

Local control, home rule, or as Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Executive Director Matt Rothschild prefers to say, ‘local democracy,’ is “the philosophy that elected officials from the most local governments, such as townships, villages and cities, are the closest to their constituents and know best what is needed in their local jurisdictions.”

As is explained on the website of the Wisconsin League of Municipalities, the Wisconsin Constitution provision known as “constitutional home rule” means that if a policy is entirely a matter of a city or village’s local affairs and government, a city or village is authorized to regulate that matter, and the legislature is prohibited from enacting a law that would preempt the local regulation of that matter.

Home rule was one of a trio of progressive amendments to Wisconsin’s constitution enacted under the leadership of Robert ‘Fighting Bob’ LaFollette and the Progressives.

Robert LaFollette was a Progressive politician and served as the Governor of Wisconsin. He developed a fierce opposition to corporate power and political corruption as a young man. Affiliated with the Republican Party for almost his entire career, LaFollette worked in the Wisconsin State Legislature, as the Governor of Wisconsin and in the U.S. Senate.

As governor, LaFollette championed numerous progressive reforms, including the recall, referendum, direct primary, initiative, the first workers' compensation system, railroad rate reform, the minimum wage and non-partisan elections. All of these were aimed at giving citizens a more direct role in government. He created an atmosphere of close collaboration between the state government and the University of Wisconsin in the development of progressive policy, which became known as the ‘Wisconsin Idea.’

In a white paper, available on the web site of the Vernon County Democratic Party,, it is explained that in 2016, a publication by the League of Wisconsin Municipalities noted the following: “Although Wisconsin cities and villages enjoy extensive home rule powers, those powers have been significantly eroded in recent years by court decisions interpreting the scope of municipal home rule powers, and by the legislature which has, with increasing frequency, enacted legislation preempting municipalities from acting in a given area.

“Legislative limitations, restrictions and unfunded mandates were catalogued by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau in 2016 at the request of Representative Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point), the Assembly Minority Leader of the Wisconsin State Assembly,” the white paper goes on to say. “According to the nonpartisan budget agency, Republican lawmakers passed more than 128 measures since 2011 restricting the authority of local government.

“Of the 128 provisions passed, 80 of them were passed with no support from Democratic lawmakers. A closer look tells the story of how Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature has cut funding and revenue sources, while at the same time prohibiting local government’s ability to regulate nuisances, threats to health, quality of life and property values.

“In Feburary of 2018, Representative Shankland shared an updated memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau showing that the legislature had restricted local governments 162 times in seven years.”

Rothschild explained to participants at the Viroqua meeting that although in recent years this activity has been associated with the Republican Party, it is actually a nonpartisan issue. He pointed to the enactment of the Livestock Facility Siting Law, during the administration of Democratic Party Governor Jim Doyle, as an example of the fact that both parties were involved in the erosion of local control.

Governor Doyle also vetoed a bill that would have put the power to appoint the DNR Secretary back in the hands of citizens instead of the governor. Governor Tommy Thompson eliminated the office of the Public Intervenor, originally created by Republican Governor Warren Knowles in 1969 as an independent mediator to represent the public's interest in court and state agency decisions. Thompson went on to take the power to appoint the DNR Secretary away from the DNR Board in the late 1980s.

Rothschild shared a quote from ‘Fighting Bob LaFollette’ a year before his death.

“The cure for the ills of democrary is more democracy,” LaFollette stated.

We still have rights

Dennis Brault, Chairperson of the Vernon County Board, was quick to remind meeting participants that even though things seem grim for local control, citizens actually still do have lots of rights to work to change and improve things.

In particular, Brault pointed to the right for citizens to put a referendum on the ballot.

“Locals have the right to ask their neighbors what they think about something,” Brault said. “It’s not too late – you could get a referendum on the ballot in November if you started now. What are you waiting for? Get started!”

Brault explained that to put a referendum on the ballot in November, a citizen would have to gather signatures equal to 15 percent of the number of people that voted in the presidential election in November 2017 in their jurisdiction. Brault encourages people to work with their county clerks and make sure they are using the right forms.

“One example would be that last year Vernon County voters passed a referendum calling for fair electoral maps and redistricting,” Brault said. “Local control isn’t dead. We still have quite a few tools in our toolbox, and we need to use them.”

Unfunded mandates

Tara Johnson, Chair of the LaCrosse County Board, seemed particularly frustrated with what she referred to as “unfunded mandates.” Johnson spoke about the property tax restrictions imposed by Governor Scott Walker and the Republicans in the legislature in the 2011-13 state budget, which toughened a tax levy limit that was already in place and created an unsustainable situation for local governments.

“Because we are simultaneously prevented from increasing revenues and given less revenue from the state, while still being required to provide all the same services such as road improvements, public health and human services, and more, we are put in an impossible position,” Johnson said. “When the state requires us to provide more services, requires us to hand over all our funding to them, and then doesn’t give it back, we have erosion of local control in the form of unfunded mandates.”

Johnson cited a few examples of erosion of local control:

• preventing local governments from deciding where cell phone towers will be sited;

• prohibiting municipalities from cooperating and sharing equipment for road repairs;

• prohibiting local government from enacting ordinances to regulate siting and setbacks of industrial agriculture facilities;

• eliminating collective bargaining rights for public employees;

• preventing local governments from enacting insurance requirements to ensure that pipeline companies would contribute to clean-up costs from oil spills;

• preventing municipal clerks from setting evening or weekend hours to accommodate constituents during the absentee voting period;

The white paper from the Vernon County Democratic Party cited a recent example in Kewaunee County. In November of 2017, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue reviewed three years of data from home sales in the county, and found that on average, homes within a quarter mile of a large CAFO sold for 13 percent less than their assessed value, and homes between a quarter of a mile and one mile from a CAFO sold for eight percent less than their assessed value. CAFO owners can dutifully follow the state standards and still have negative spillover effects that reduce their neighbor’s property values.

“For any local government, having to increase someone else’s property taxes due to declining property values near CAFOs is a no-win situation,” the white paper declared. “Ideally, local officials would be able to work with farmers on solutions that protect local property values and prevent conflicts among neighbors. But under current livestock siting rules enacted in 2004, local governments are not allowed to require setbacks for CAFOs that are greater than the state guidelines, even if greater setbacks would protect neighboring property values.”

Johnson also cited one example where citizen activism had prevailed even where local government had its hands tied.

“In LaCrosse County, a cell phone company announced their intention to site a cell phone tower in an area that the county and county citizens disagreed with,” Johnson said. “The county board stood up to the cell phone company and we refused to issue a conditional use permit. There was lots of angst on the board about fear of a lawsuit. But in the end, the company chose a different location for the tower because these company’s don’t like bad stories about them in the press, which could potentially impact consumer buying decisions.”

Another recent example was in Vernon County with the proposed pork slaughtering plant in the former Driftless Meats facility. The facility was to be operated by Premium Iowa Pork (PIP), which operates large pork slaughtering plants in Iowa with a long track record of humane and environmental violations.

Concerned Citizens for Smart Growth organized local citizens to oppose the company’s plans for the facility, stating that it would draw large industrial pork farming operations to the area. They said that this would cause numerous threats and especially a threat to the area’s ground water and trout streams.

On April 9, 2018, PIP, which had already purchased the property and had every right, according to state law, to operate a pork slaughter plant there, announced that they were cancelling their plans and putting the facility up for sale.