Serious County Reform
All the recent fuss about reforming the government of Milwaukee County has been about the size and pay of the County Board. There is no ideal size, but a smaller board could probably handle the workload just as well as the 18 members we have now. Cook Cou nty, Illlinois, (which includes Chicago) has five times the population of Milwaukee County, and gets by with only a 15-member County Board. As noted in a previous posting of this blog, cutting the pay of our County Board will result in supervisors devoting less time and attention to County business, which could lead to poor decisions that cost far more than the savings of pay.
But there has been no interest in reforming the countywide partisan offices of Sheriff, District Attorney, Register of Deeds, County Clerk, County Treasurer and Clerk of Courts. None of these offices should be filled by partisan elections, and some should not be elective at all! Here are my alternatives:
Sheriff and District Attorney: Partisanship should have no place in law enforcement; party identification gives the impression that these officials will provide preferential treatment to other public officials of their own party in investigations and prosecutions. Both should be elected on a non-partisan ballot at the same time as County Executive.
County Clerk should be appointed by the County Board, since the main role of this official is to provide staff assistance for the Board. The Board should have the power to replace the Clerk at any time.The Register of Deeds should become a manager in the office of the County Clerk.
Clerk of Courts should be appointed by the circuit judges of the County, since his duty is to assist the judges by assigning cases and managing the court calendars and juries. The judges should have the power to replace this official at any time.
County Treasurer should be abolished, and all duties of this office assigned to the new (non-partisan) County Comptroller.
Some of these reforms will save money by cutting unnecessary administrative jobs. Although in theory these officials are answerable to "the people" for the conduct of their offices, the truth is that under the present system the public does not know (or much care) how they are doing. Only rarely does an elected incumbent lose, and only then for scandalous misconduct. (1) Once in office, they stay until death or retirement, whichever comes first.
County government is important because it can be the base for metropolitan government in the future. Many of the duties of the 19 cities and villages in Milwaukee County should be transferred to the County, which would reduce managerial and administrative costs. For example, we could reduce the number of police and fire chiefs and school superintendents this way, without eliminating even one policeman, firefigher or teacher. Eliminating city and village government in the County would also save the salaries of mayors, aldermen, and their staffs without cutting services.
Unfortunately, many aspects of the present structure are in the Wisconsin Constitution. I advocate amending the Constitution to give the most populous counties ( those with more than 100,000 residents) the power to reform their own structure. In addition, all county elections should become non-partisan, as county board elections are now.
In the age of the Internet, our county governments are mired in the horse-and-buggy era.
Gerald S Glazer
(1) The last partisan countywide official to lose a Democratic primary in Milwaukee County was County Clerk Tom Zablocki, who lost to Rod Lanser in 1984. No Democratic nominee for such an office has lost a general election in over sixty years. However, Republicans who had been appointed to fill County offices lost to Democratic nominees in the next general election. That is why David Clarke, appointed Sheriff by Republican Acting Governor Scott McCallum, runs as a Democrat.