Here is my column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.
After much debate and a second vote by the County Board, Washington County will have a county executive. The structural change in government offers the citizens of Washington County an opportunity to reset the direction of the county for years to come.
The vote by the County Board last week to change the county’s form of government from a county administrator to a county executive came after the same board rejected the idea in June. Washington County has long had a form of government where the executive function is delegated to a hired administrator by the County Board. The county administrator is unelected and responsible to the County Board that hired him or her.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a county administrator form of government. In it, the elected County Board exercises both the legislative and executive functions of government with the executive functions being completed by a hired employee. This form of government ensures that the executive function will be completed by a competent executive, but all of the power is retained by the County Board.
The choice by the County Board to enact a county executive form of government represents a distinct ceding of power from the legislative branch of government to the executive branch of government. An elected county executive has to power to hire and fire department heads and veto County Board actions. Perhaps most important of all, an elected county executive is responsible to the voters, not the County Board. The County Board will no longer be able to fire a recalcitrant executive. In our county’s new form of government, the executive branch will truly be an independent, coequal branch of government.
The two things that a county executive form of government provides are accountability and direction. In our current county administrator form of government, accountability is diffused and it is difficult for citizens to hold their county government responsible. For example, if a county citizen is upset with a pockmarked county road, or the fee for county parks, or county transit, what can he do?
He can complain to the relevant county officials, but they are all ultimately responsible to the County Board. A citizen can complain to his or her County Board supervisor, but no single supervisor can enact change. It would take a citizen, or a coalition of citizens, complaining and getting 14 individual County Board supervisors to support making a change. If those supervisors will not act, it would take finding 14 people of like mind to run for office and win in order to change the makeup of the County Board. Ultimately, the county administrator form of government insulates the county bureaucracy from accountability.
As we see in other counties that already have an elected county executive who is responsible to the voters, having a single executive allows the citizens to hold that executive accountable if he underperforms or otherwise misbehaves. The county executive is not wholly responsible for policy, but he or she is responsible for the fair and quality execution of that policy. That kind of accountability has a ripple effect through any large organization.
The second thing that an elected county executive provides is the opportunity to establish a vision for the county. Washington County is in transition. While still largely rural with important rural interests, the county is becoming increasingly urban with important commercial and residential interests. What will the Washington County of 2025, 2030, or 2050 look like? With an interstate, land to build, airports, and a fantastic workforce, will Washington County aggressively compete for the economic growth being spurred in the rest of southeast Wisconsin? Or will we prefer to leverage the county’s idyllic natural beauty to attract commuters and nature enthusiasts? Or something in between? What is the right mix and balance?
These are the things that a county executive will help define and give the voters the opportunity to choose the direction they want. And, more importantly, if a county executive takes the county down a path that the voters do not want, it only takes a single election to change direction.
As candidates for county executive step forward to ask for our votes over the next few months, I welcome an array of competing visions for the future of our county so that we, the voters, may debate and decide the future direction of Washington County.