Washington County needs an executive

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

The Washington County Board of Supervisors is considering changing the structure of county government to create a county executive instead of the current county administrator structure. The County Board should move swiftly to enact this change in time for the voters of Washington County to elect their first county executive next April.

Wisconsin allows for three forms of county government that have progressively more powerful executive functions. The first form has a very weak administrative coordinator. In this form of government, the county board appoints a coordinator who has very limited power, but is responsible for coordinating and executing the orders from the board. The coordinator does not appoint department heads and does not have any independent budget authority. Thirty three Wisconsin counties use this structure.

The second form has a stronger executive function held by county administrator. The county board still appoints the county administrator, but the administrator has the authority to prepare and present a budget, appoint and remove department heads with confirmation from the county board, and coordinate departments. This is the form of government that Washington County uses along with 28 other counties.

The third form of county government empowers an elected county executive with responsibility for the executive functions of government. In this form, all of the voters in the county elect a single executive. As such, the county executive cannot be removed by the county board. Only the governor can remove a county executive for cause. The county executive has all of the powers and responsibilities of a county administrator, but also has the power to veto county board actions and remove department heads without board confirmation. Eleven, mostly more urban, Wisconsin counties have a county executive including neighboring Fond du Lac, Waukesha, and Milwaukee counties.

The main benefit for Washington County of switching to a county executive form of government is that is gives the electors a single person who represents the entire county. That person would be able to set a vision and direction for the county, as well as be held responsible for the overall performance of county government.

In the current form of Washington County’s government, there are 26 supervisors (still way too many) who each represent a few thousand citizens. They elect a county chairperson, other board officers, and appoint the county administrator. Each county board supervisor is elected to represent the interests of his or her constituents — as it should be. Nobody on the board represents the entire county.

Similarly, if the citizens are dissatisfied with the direction of county government, it is extremely difficult to make their will known across a slate of 26 board supervisors. To enact a change in direction, at least 14 new people must run and win across the county to build a new majority on the County Board. And if the County Board passes something outrageous, there is not any veto check on their action like there is at the state and federal levels of government.

By having a county executive, Washington County would have a single person who would represent the entire county’s interests with businesses, state government, and other interests. The citizens of the county would also have a single person to take their grievances to when a county department fails them. It would make county government more nimble and more responsive to the citizens and external interests.

The down side of having a county executive is that the legislative part of county government, the Board of Supervisors, would have to cede some of their current power over executive functions. This is a small price to pay for the benefits a county executive would bring to the county.

Our nation has a long history of having three separate, distinct branches of government that balance and check each other. Washington County has reached a level of population, complexity, and maturity that make this the right time to create an independent executive branch.