Walworth County Government Today: Rules for a reason: Ordinances guide major county decisions

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Dave Bretl | June 17, 2015

My last two columns have focused on how the Walworth County Board has changed its approach to governance during the last two decades. Key to this change has been the use of ordinances.

Ordinances are policy statements or rules that express how the elected board wants county government to be run.  Department heads, in turn, need to follow these rules to carry out the board's intent. Until 1997 there weren't many of these rules and they weren't well-known to the public, staff or even supervisors. The county clerk maintained the ordinances that had been adopted. Thankfully, we have had some very good clerks over the years. Because of their sharp memories and long tenures, each of them could be relied upon, when asked, to find a particular ordinance. This was a special skill that always amazed me, because the ordinances were filed chronologically and the county has been in business since 1838.

During a meeting, a supervisor, with an equally long tenure, might experience a feeling of déjà vu when an issue was being debated and ask the question, “Didn't we pass an ordinance on this a few years back?”

Clerks like Joe Breidenbach, Carol Krauklis and Kim Bushey always could be relied upon to research the issue and, if an ordinance had been passed, locate it and furnish the board with a copy. 

While our clerks did their best to provide answers, the system had its shortcomings. It wasn't possible for the clerk to attend each of the numerous committee meetings that were held each month.  Most decisions weren't made at the committee or even board level. Like today, managers and staff were entrusted to make the hundreds of day-to-day decisions necessary to carry out county operations. Newly hired department heads often were oblivious to the fact that the board had ever provided guidance on a particular issue. If a department acted contrary to the previously stated intent of the board, the issue nearly always was discovered after the fact, when an invoice needed to be paid or a budget had run out of funds. In some cases the transgression might have been intentional, but many others were often the result of an honest mistake. When situations like these arose, hard feelings between appointed and elected officials were typically the result.  

The county's first attempt to organize and publish its ordinances actually was accomplished by our zoning department.  For the folks who worked there, codification wasn't an option. Property owners, with thousands or millions of dollars at stake, understandably, wanted to see land use rules in advance and in writing.  Likewise, zoning inspectors needed to have a coherent set of written rules in order for their citations to hold up in court. For many years, the zoning department maintained and published its own codebook that it updated and made available for purchase by the public.

The codebook approach worked great for zoning, but the balance of the county's operations still relied on the great oral tradition of clerks scouring the archives and reporting back to the county board when an issue emerged. All of this changed in 1997, when the county made the decision to codify all of its ordinances into a single book.

The codification decision was not met with universal praise. It would cost money to publish and update the code every time an ordinance was changed, an expense compounded by the large 35-member board. Our zoning department had its own concerns. Its system was working well. If it abandoned its homegrown codebook and the county failed to maintain its own, in short order, zoning would be a mess.

Despite some fits and starts, the codification project finally got off the ground.  The first question that arose, namely what content should be contained in ordinances, is still relevant today. With the goal of transferring policymaking from appointed to elected officials and from individual committees to the board as a whole, some committee chairs and department heads were convinced that the project was an assault on their power. In one sense this was true. Empowering the board as a whole meant that the majority of a seven-member committee (four supervisors) or four supervisors led by a department head, would no longer make major policy decisions independent of county board oversight. While the codebook is here to stay, legitimate questions still arise over the appropriate level of detail to be included in ordinances.   

The development of the county's code of ordinances seems like an esoteric topic, however, it provides the single best explanation of how a dozen or more independent committees pulled together to achieve common goals. Ordinances explain how the county was able to solve many long-standing problems, including controlling taxes, paying off debt and planning for the future.

Americans have a love-hate relationship with rules, particularly when it comes to government. On one hand, rules are equated with red tape and inflexibility. A corporate CEO doesn't need a codebook, it is argued, and if public workers would only exercise common sense, government could operate more like a business. Common sense, however, is often in the eye of the beholder. Public workers, myself included, spend taxpayer money, not corporate revenues. What one taxpayer views as a necessary expenditure may seem like a waste of money to another. Clear rules, in the form of ordinances, ensure that major policy decisions are made by elected leaders at public meetings.

If you are interested in learning more about county ordinances, the entire codebook can be viewed online at www.co.walworth.wi.us.  

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