Committee improves communication, public safety
If an organizational expert was given a free hand to devise a plan to deliver critical services to state residents, it is unlikely that our current system of local government would be proposed. The myriad town, municipal and school governments that exist today could, undoubtedly, be streamlined. Our current system evolved over nearly 200 years, and each unit of government and elected office probably made sense at the time it was created.
While a better mousetrap could be invented today, changing the basic structure is easier said than done. At the state level, politicians have sparred for years as to whether certain offices, such as the secretary of state or state treasurer, should even exist. At the end of each legislative session, however, the status quo is almost always preserved. Even when an office is gutted of nearly all of its functions, as is the case with the Wisconsin secretary of state, the elected office still remains.
Because of its age, county government can be even more unwieldy than most other forms of local government. Some county offices can trace their origins back to the shires of medieval England. While attempts have been made over the years to impose some sort of central control over the organization, nearly all of the elected offices that were ever created still exist today. Eleven county board supervisors hold the purse strings, while 11 independently elected officers and numerous appointed officials deliver programs.
Like the bumblebee that, according to engineers, shouldn't be able to fly, serious hurdles have been built into the system of county government. Autonomy provides the various players with the opportunity to blame others for poor results. Unfortunately, this is precisely what is happening in many counties across the country. The only chance the system has to succeed is through cooperation. When officials are able to keep their egos in check and respect the roles of other offices, an efficiency that was never designed into the system can nevertheless occur. Walworth County is fortunate to be served by the kind of elected officials that I just described, leaders whose primary motivation is to serve the public.
It is probably because of this high level of cooperation that I never saw the need for a criminal justice coordinating committee. A criminal justice coordinating committee brings key players in the criminal justice system to the table to develop programs that will utilize tax dollars in the most efficient way, while protecting public safety. Given the goodwill that already existed among criminal justice stakeholders, including our judges, sheriff and clerk of courts, district attorney and county board, I questioned the point of adding another meeting to our calendar. A second concern of mine pertained to the autonomy of each member. A CJCC cannot order the county board to appropriate money or a circuit court judge to issue a particular sentence; a committee that had only persuasive authority over the actions of its members seemed like a questionable expenditure of time. I never got in the way of its formation, but I was hardly a cheerleader for the effort when, in 2004, county board supervisor Joyce Ketchpaw had the vision to establish a CJCC in Walworth County and championed its creation.
In my defense, I was not alone in my skepticism. The early meetings of our fledgling CJCC seemed to bear out my concerns. The participants were too polite to skip the meetings, but there seemed to be little to show for all of the time that was being spent. Tenacity usually pays off, and in this case, those early meetings actually sowed the seeds for later success. Today, our county's CJCC meetings not only draw a sizable crowd, but the committee has implemented a number of important initiatives. A similar court for drunk drivers, that attempts to break the cycle of addiction that leads to repeat violations, has been in effect now for several years. A treatment court to address drug abuse will be rolled out in the near future.
Another interesting program for which Walworth County recently was awarded a state grant addresses early intervention. Rather than waiting until children get into serious trouble with the law, this most recent juvenile justice initiative will make social workers available in selected municipal courts. By determining why these juveniles run afoul of the law, it may be possible to prevent the behavior from escalating. The program has been working well in the East Troy municipal court according to the judge there, Michael Cotter. The state grant will allow the pilot program to be expanded to an additional municipal court.
The success of the CJCC, in my opinion, can be attributed to the way in which the committee has improved communication. While leaders always were willing to cooperate, communication among so many stakeholders was difficult and, in many cases, not taking place.
I am happy that I was wrong about the CJCC. Programs initiated by the committee are showing promising results. Breaking the cycle of criminal behavior holds the promise of improving public safety while saving millions in jail costs. Those leaders who had the vision to create the CJCC and the tenacity to improve it over the years deserve our thanks.
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.