Interested in county board? Learn about what's involved

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Dave Bretl | October 28, 2013

If you have ever considered serving on the Walworth County Board, I encourage you to attend an informational meeting on the subject next month. It may seem early to be thinking about the spring election now, but those seeking a seat on the 2014-'16 board of supervisors can begin circulating nomination papers in December. While incumbents have a good idea about what to expect during the next term, the goal of the meeting is to provide basic facts about board service to citizens who may not be as familiar with our organization.

The meeting will be conducted in a workshop format to provide those contemplating a run for the county board with an overview of Walworth County government and a discussion of the time commitment that likely will be required of new supervisors. The two-hour class is not a “how to” seminar on running for public office but rather a preview of what a supervisor might expect to experience if elected to the board. In addition to outlining the wide range of services provided by county government and highlighting some of the legal rules under which supervisors must operate, the workshop will address the relationship between the board and other elected and appointed officials and review the committee structure.

The idea for the workshop originated in 2007 in anticipation of the board's reduction from 25 to 11 members, which took place the following year. Incumbents, at the time, were concerned that the smaller board would result in a significantly greater workload for each supervisor. They felt it was important to apprise anyone considering service on the next board of the time commitment that likely would be required. Because no one knew exactly what to expect on the downsized board, it was necessary to estimate the time that would be required. Those estimates, themselves, were controversial at the time. A point of contention during the debate over downsizing was whether the resulting workload would be manageable. Some felt that opponents of downsizing were overstating the amount of time that would be required.

In hindsight, information presented at the inaugural workshop probably underestimated the time commitment actually required of supervisors. With the benefit of nearly six years of experience, we now have a much clearer picture. Time commitments of a supervisor include the following:

• Board meetings. In addition to special board meetings and public hearings that arise from time to time, the county board typically meets on the second Tuesday of each month, beginning at 6 p.m. The length of these meetings varies greatly depending on the number and type of issues on a particular agenda.

Supervisors have other commitments on “County Board Day,” as the second Tuesday of each month has come to be called. Every two to three months, the board convenes at 5 p.m. as a committee of the whole to discuss an issue in-depth. To deal with urgent issues that may have come up between meetings, special standing committee meetings often are held that day, as well. Finally, the board uses that day to establish the agendas for its committee meetings, which are held the following week. Given the number of meetings held, it is not unusual for County Board Day to begin at 3 p.m.

• Committee meetings. Supervisors are also responsible for attending meetings of the board's standing committees to which they are assigned. Much of the work of the board is addressed in one of 11 committees. To distribute workload and influence in the organization, committee assignments are divided, more or less equally, among supervisors. Most supervisors are assigned to three or four committees, which typically meet monthly.  It isn't unusual for a committee meeting to last two hours.

• Preparation. In advance of each board and committee meeting, an informational packet is delivered to each supervisor. The packet contains drafts of the legislation to be discussed at the meeting as well as staff analysis of the issues. The length of time required to read this material varies among supervisors. Members interested in the broader policy impacts of a particular course of action can move through a packet relatively quickly, while those interested in all of the details spend more time preparing for meetings.

• Additional time commitments. In addition to attending meetings of the standing committees to which they are assigned, some board members attend other standing committee meetings to better prepare themselves for county board debate. Optional committee assignments are available, as well, to committees such as lake management districts, the Wisconsin River Rail Transit Commission and the Intergovernmental Cooperation Council. A number of supervisors choose to keep in touch with constituents by attending town, village or common council meetings in the districts they represent.

This will be the fourth candidate workshop that I have been involved in since 2007. I will be presenting information along with our county board chair, Nancy Russell. It isn't our intention to talk people into running or to discourage them from filing papers; the point of the workshop is to present objective information to help people decide whether board service is right for them. 

The workshop is a public meeting. It will be held at 3 p.m. Monday, Nov. 4, in the county boardroom at the Walworth County Government Center in downtown Elkhorn.
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit

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