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Journal of proceedings a good read?

July 06, 2011 | 07:28 AM
Everyone loves to read a good book over the summer. Fortunately for me our County Clerk, Kim Bushey, recently provided some great summer reading by releasing the 2010 Journal of Proceedings of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors. Times like these remind me that I am a bit of a geek when it comes to local government issues. While the 495-page tome would put most people to sleep, I looked forward to reading it like most folks would anticipate the release of the latest Dan Brown thriller.

The journal is an indexed compilation of a year's worth of County Board meetings. It fulfills two separate statutory directives that require the County Clerk to "record at length, in a book" every resolution adopted, order passed and ordinance enacted and "to keep and record in a book" true minutes of all of the proceedings of the board. Rather than capturing a calendar year, the journal follows a County Board year, which starts in April at its organizational meeting. This year's 2010 journal, therefore, also includes the first three months of 2011.

One reason why I like the journal is that it provides a historical record of County Board activities and allows comparisons to be made from year to year. Clerks have been keeping these books for a long time. The oldest edition I have in my office is a copy from 1903. I haven't asked, but I would expect that even older versions are kept in the clerk's vault. Because the format of the journals has stayed the same over the years, reading them provides insight as to how county government has changed. In 1903, for example, the County Board met just twice. The main order of business that year included levying $92,000 in property taxes to support the next year's budget. The equalized value of taxable property in the county, that year, stood at a mere $33 million. In 2010, Walworth County's equalized value was $14.4 billion and, at its meeting this past November, the board levied $60.7 million in taxes.

Aside from these very obvious differences, the journals offer some insight into changes in the County Board's workload over time. Of particular interest to me is how significant amendments to the board's operating rules, made during the past decade, have impacted the decision-making process. Three measures, contained in the journals, provide a sense of how the board is accomplishing its work; these include communications, ordinances and resolutions.

Communications are simply letters and correspondence from the public, county staff and even Board Supervisors, which provide information to the board or urge a particular course of action. The number of communications has risen dramatically. One likely reason for the increase is a 2002 amendment to the county's operating rules. That change established a formal process for supervisors and citizens to bring their ideas to the board. Rather than just complaining about issues but never taking action on them, supervisors and the public have been encouraged to commit their views to writing and submit them to the board. the board, in turn, typically refers the communications to one of its standing committees.

If the idea has merit, the communication will be returned to the board in the form of a proposed ordinance or resolution. Prior to the rule change, during the period of 1994 to 1996, for example, the board was presented with an average of just 18 items of correspondence per year. In 2010, this figure had increased to an average of 12 per meeting. Despite the fact that the rule change has been on the books for nearly 10 years, there is evidence that the number of communications sent to the board is still increasing.

A second trend, apparent from the journals, has to do with how the board governs the county, namely through the adoption of resolutions and ordinances. In general, resolutions deal with issues on a case-by-case basis. Ordinances are of a more permanent nature and seek to deal with issues by establishing parameters and guidelines by which staff, committees or the whole board may make decisions. For many years, the county's ordinances were not "codified," that is, collected in a single book. Given the lack of emphasis on a code book it isn't surprising the board adopted few ordinances. Instead, resolutions were passed to deal with issues on a case-by-case basis or committees and employees made decisions without formal guidance from the board. It wasn't until 1998 that a formal codebook was maintained. In the three years immediately preceding codification, from 1994 to 1997, supervisors adopted just 30 non-zoning ordinances. In 2010, alone, the board passed 55 of them. Unlike items of correspondence, however, which appear to be on the rise, the number of ordinances considered by the board, on an annual basis, appears to have plateaued.

Given that meeting minutes and resolutions have been kept electronically for many years, it is probably just a matter of time before the legislature drops the requirement of publishing an annual proceedings book. From my perspective, that will be a loss. There is no question that all of the data will be saved. The advantages of the journals, however, are their relative brevity, long history and standard format. However outdated books may be, these features make it easy to see where we have been, as a county, and hopefully provide insight as to where we are going. Besides, if clerks quit publishing these journals, what will I read at the beach?

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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