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January 18, 2012 | 07:34 AM
The election results are in, sort of, for the upcoming 2012-14 term of the Walworth County Board. Tuesday, Jan. 3, marked the deadline for most supervisory candidates to file their nomination papers with the county clerk. By "sort of" being in, I mean that you will still have to wait until April to find out the winners of the elections. The nomination papers, however, are results, in and of themselves, to the extent that they add to the debate regarding the ideal size of county boards.

Wisconsin has more than its share of government compared to other states. When it comes to county board size, Wisconsin leads the pack. Recent figures I've seen placed 10 Wisconsin counties on the top 12 list of largest county boards in the nation. Of the 26 largest county boards in the U.S., 21 are located in Wisconsin. Nearly 10 percent of all county board members in the country reside in Wisconsin.

Since boards are often averse to reducing themselves, the state provided a mechanism for citizens to do the job. In 2006, the legislature passed Act 100, which directed that the question of board size be put on the ballot if a sufficient number of signatures were collected. Act 100 impacted boards in two ways. Voters in a number of counties, including Walworth, were successful in reducing the size of their boards. In the case of our county, a 2007 referendum reduced the board from 25 to 11 supervisors.

A second effect of the legislation was to prompt boards to voluntarily downsize as a means of preempting citizen action. Under the law, a board could be reduced only once between each federal census. If supervisors beat citizen groups to the punch, the board could establish the number of seats that would be eliminated. Not surprisingly, citizens, in the counties where downsizing referenda passed, felt that county boards could get by with fewer members than county supervisors, themselves, felt would be prudent.

In addition to Walworth County's 56 percent reduction, voter-generated downsizings in 2006 trimmed county board membership in Fond du Lac County from 36 to 18, in Price County from 21 to 13 and in Waushara, from 21 to 11. Direct legislation cut the Wood County Board in half, from 38 to 19 members. By contrast, those boards that voluntarily downsized did so much more modestly. Under the threat of a petition, Waukesha County eliminated 10 of its 35 seats. Green Lake County reduced its membership from 21 to 19.

A number of counties have chosen to downsize as part of the redistricting which was required to take place following the 2010 census. Supervisors in Ozaukee County downsized from 31 to 26 members. Sheboygan County trimmed its supervisory roster from 34 to 25.

Since our 2007 downsizing, I have received calls from officials in other counties looking for the "smoking gun" to support their arguments either for or against downsizing. Both groups are generally dissatisfied with my answer, which is that it has been a "mixed bag." We have been able to get our work done, but the workload for the remaining supervisors is substantial. Walworth County has attracted particular attention from outside groups on this issue for several reasons.

Not only was the petition here one of the first to succeed under Act 100, but it was the second downsizing to occur during the decade. The first, a voluntary one, reduced the board from 35 to 25 earlier in the decade. The resulting size of our board, one of the smallest in the state, created further curiosity from outside groups.

One question that I have never been able to answer is whether a smaller board has created a more vigorous electoral process. A criticism of large boards is the absence of candidates to vie for the numerous seats. Incumbents on large boards, the argument goes, run unchallenged. In some cases, no candidates run. There is anecdotal support for this proposition. In 2008, the cartoon character Papa Smurf tied two other write-in candidates for a seat on the 37-member Dodge County Board. Election "results," in the form of nomination papers filed for the upcoming spring election, add to the body of knowledge on this topic.

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In the year following our first downsizing in 2001, 16 of 25 or 64 percent of supervisory districts featured a contested race. In 2004, this figure stood at 40 percent and declined to eight percent in 2006. In 2008, following our second downsizing, all 11 districts were contested. The percentage of contested elections decreased to 18 percent in 2010. Four districts (36 percent) will be contested in our upcoming 2012 election.

Large county boards in the area will feature contested races as follows: Ozaukee County, 30 percent; Washington County, 26 percent; and Waukesha County, 20 percent. In the election cycle prior to its voluntary downsizing, fewer than 10 percent of Ozaukee County seats featured two or more candidates. Forty percent of Waukesha County's seats were contested following its downsizing.

My conclusion: downsizing creates vigorous competition in the first election following its implementation. Placing two or more incumbents in a single district will increase the number of contested elections. After that, ask me in 2014.

The data seem mixed, at best. Of course, none of this matters if you don't vote. Be sure to do so. Primary elections are Feb. 21. The spring vote will be on April 3.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors.

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