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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.




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