Since I started paying (too much) attention to government and politics I have noticed how often similar subjects come up in different governing bodies.
Sometimes that’s imposed from above — for instance, changed federal and state requirements. Other times, I’m not sure if the same elected officials or government employees went to the same conference, attended the same seminars, and brought back those ideas.
The common subject this week has to do with reform of elective bodies. It is an important subject because our elected officials are supposed to represent us but often don’t, in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons.
This week’s Platteville Common Council agenda included a review of chapter 2.04 of the Municipal Code, titled “Common Council.” It includes the layout of aldermanic and Grant County Board districts, and how the meetings are run. It also includes this part: “The Council President shall be selected by a majority vote of all members of the Council at the annual meeting on the third Tuesday of April in each year.”
As you know, I favor the council president’s being chosen only from the three at-large seats and not the four district seats. This has nothing to do with current council president Eileen Nickels or any of her predecessors; it has to do with the fact that the at-large seats are the only council seats voted on by all Platteville voters, and it seems logical to have council president candidates chosen by all the voters, not just those in a particular district.
I also would like to see a change in the rule requiring roll call votes for all votes, because roll call votes are not always necessary. Roll call votes seem necessary for fiscal items, changes to the municipal code or going into closed session, but perhaps not otherwise. As it is, whenever there’s a question, either by the clerk or an alderman, a roll call vote can be taken anyway. I also find that meetings that last more than two hours lose effective thought by the end of hour two; it would be interesting to see a statutory time limit put on meetings, or at least the non-closed session part of meetings.
I’ve written here before that I think the Platteville School Board does a better job than the Common Council in their areas of responsibility. There is one thing, however, that the Common Council does that the school district does not but should do — put board meetings on cable TV or perhaps online. Given what we pay in taxes, we should be able to see our elected officials deliberate live and recorded, even if we cannot get to meetings in person.
This column was prompted by two other recent stories — one about contentious public comments during a Lafayette County Board meeting, and how the newest Grant County supervisor was chosen. Both counties have at least one thing in common — committee meetings scheduled during the daytime. (As listed in Government Journal on page 5A.) It’s ironic to complain about people not knowing what’s going on when committee meetings are scheduled for the benefit of two groups of people — board members and county employees — and not those paying both groups’ salaries.
Another thing Grant and Lafayette counties have in common is the fact that the county board chairs serve as their counties’ chief administrative officers when they lack the ability to do so. This is not a slam against current Grant County board chair Bob Keeney or Lafayette County board chair Jack Sauer or any of their predecessors or possible successors. No Grant County supervisor has ever run an enterprise with more than 500 employees that spends $45 million or more a year. Iowa County, whose population is half of Grant County’s, has a county administrator.
A county administrator, similar to Platteville’s city manager or other cities’ administrators, is trained in public-sector management. That requires a particular skill set that county supervisors almost never bring to their positions except by county board experience. The job of running units of government is changing in these days of diminishing resources, expanding demands on existing resources, and the new relationship between counties and their employees. It is not a slam against school board presidents to observe that school board presidents are not qualified to run school districts; that’s not their role. It shouldn’t be the role of a county board chair — decided on by as few as nine people out of Grant County’s 51,000 population — to run Grant County.
A letter on this page this week calls for either a county executive or county administrator. I’d prefer the latter to the former, but either is preferable to the way Grant County is run now.