Last week’s edition of your favorite weekly newspaper had another report on the Grant County Board’s regrettable behavior during its meetings.
Readers of that story may have been surprised to find out that (1) the Grant County board chair is considered a full-time employee of the county, which means (2) he gets $46,152 in pay (more than many of his constituents whose tax dollars fund the position) and full-time-employee benefits, including vacation time.
Readers of that story could not have been surprised to see yet another instance of the board’s dysfunction, demonstrated, as Sup. Carol Beals of Platteville noted, for newspaper, which is to say public, consumption. Supervisors’ inability to prevent their policy differences from becoming personal attacks make every other elective body in this area — for instance, the Platteville Common Council, whose policy disagreements occasionally descend into public snippiness — look good in comparison. (To say nothing about such elective bodies as the Platteville School Board, which makes difficult decisions without abandoning civility.)
Proving that a stopped clock is right once or twice a day, Schroeder’s complaint about how much vacation time Wolf has taken — a complaint whose validity is somewhere between legitimate and an attack on the entire board, whose majority vote chooses the board chair and authorizes the chair’s salary — illustrates a major problem with the structure of Grant County government.
Counties that don’t have county executives or administrators (more about those positions later) are required to have administrative coordinators, which were allowed to be “elected or appointed” until a 2011 legal opinion by Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen that the positions of county supervisor and administrative coordinator were “legally incompatible.” Finance Director Nancy Scott was administrative coordinator until one year ago, when County Clerk Linda Gebhard got the title, without any actual authority. (County boards decide how much authority administrative coordinators have.)
Whether or not Van Hollen was legally correct, he was factually correct. County supervisors are legislators. Their jobs are to create policy and oversee, not to manage.
No present or past county board chair — indeed, no present or past county supervisor, and I daresay anyone likely to run in the future — is qualified to run Grant County. How can I make such a blanket statement as that? Simple. How many county supervisors have run enterprises — businesses or any other kind of organization — with 538 employees and annual budgets of $45 million?
In contrast, a county administrator, similar to city managers or 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.
One thing a county administrator is likely to be better at than county supervisors is familiarity with the state Open Meetings and Open Records laws. If Grant County had a county administrator, perhaps the county wouldn’t have had the embarrassment of the hiring of a new employee delayed because the meeting to hire the employee was improperly noticed. The question of whether county boards should be involved in hiring non-administrator-level employees at all is another subject.
Boscobel, population 3,000, has a city administrator. So does Lancaster, population 4,000. Platteville, population 11,000, has a city manager. Grant County, population 50,000, with many more powers given to the county by state government (because counties are the main arm of state government), has no one in a similar position with similar authority over county operations.
Grant County could go in two different directions. The largest counties of this state have elected county executives. That may seem excessive for Grant County, but most cities of 50,000 would elect their mayor. (Janesville, population nearly 64,000, has a city manager.) An elected county executive would mean that everyone, not just 17 county supervisors, would get to choose Grant County’s leader. That would give to the voter the power to decide which qualities and qualifications the voter considers important in administering $45 million budgets and managing more than 500 county employees.
The alternative model is to hire a county administrator, which 19 counties have, including Iowa County to our east, whose population is half of Grant County’s. Bayfield and Ashland counties, whose populations are one-third the size of Grant County’s, also have county administrators. The hiring of a county administrator would be up to the County Board, but one would assume that the board would choose an administrator based on his or her professional training and appropriate experience.
The county board chair should not be a full-time employee of the county. (For one thing, that defies the state Open Records Law, which specifically does not include elected officials as governmental employees. That means, supervisors, that the next time you disappear into closed session trying to compel better public behavior among yourselves, that you will violate the Open Meetings Law, as you did the last time.) The board chair should get a minimal amount of additional pay to run board meetings, and that’s all.