Posted on

Don’t shrink the county board

With 38 members, Marathon County Board of Supervisors is the largest in the state. Is it too big? And should the county have a smaller board?

We say no.

Over the decades, the board, a true barometer of public sentiment on a host of issues, has served well the cause of local democracy and, for this reason, it should be kept in place.

The county, as a follow-up to last year’s budget negotiations, is in the process of convening a board size task force which could recommend a smaller, slimmer county board.

We have no issue with supervisors studying board size. It’s an eternal conversation. But we do object to supervisors calling for a smaller board if only because other counties have smaller boards. The county board shouldn’t try and fix something that isn’t broken.

Across Wisconsin, the typical supervisor represents 2,282 people (based on 2006 statistics). In Marathon County, however, each supervisor represents 3,571 people, about half again as much as state average. We fear cutting the county board and winding up with even worse representation. The Marathon County public deserves better.

The discussion to shrink the county board started with Wausau supervisor Jeff Johnson’s idea that the county could continue to fund various private agencies, including the Women’s Community and the Marathon County Historical Society, if the board would just agree to cut its size in half, saving money on supervisory salaries, mileage and equipment.

This was a truly bad idea. The way you deal with budget trouble is not to make your board less representative of the public. You want the board to be a flawless mirror of public opinion. Only then can a board find the courage to make tough budget choices.

In the larger scheme of things, the county board is not that expensive. According to county finance records, the county in 2018 spent $416,395 in legislative expenses, including contracted services plus materials and supplies. This is a sum of money, true, but it is not that much to spend for a body that oversees a $165 million budget. It’s the price we pay for democracy.

We can see how some supervisors don’t see the problem with cutting the board. What is the difference, really, these officials might say, if the county board has five Wausau supervisors, not 11? Wausau is still well represented. The trouble is that the rural suffers with a smaller board. Currently, communities such as Athens, Edgar, Stratford, Spencer, Marathon City and Mosinee can each have their own legislator, one who represents these communities in their unique histories, ambitions, wants, needs and desires. We think the county board is stronger because it represents not big blocs of voters, but, instead, communities and neighborhoods, especially rural enclaves.

A big board has further advantages. It brings together a large pool of talent. Out of the pool can come good leadership. And this is essential to a well running board.

We live in an era of divided politics. Legislators represent their party, not their local area. The people get lost in this polarized fight and lose faith in our system. They heap scorn on their representatives.

We see the Marathon County Board of Supervisors not as an antidote to this bitterly divided politics, but it is at least one level of government that stays in touch with residents and their problems. It keeps our democracy from a total fail.

The county faces a whole bevy of problems. It can’t figure out how to balance its budget. It needs to deal with its justice system. It needs to find a way to improve local broadband.

We need everybody sitting on the county board to bring his or her best ideas to the table and make progress on any of these truly tough issues. Everybody can make a positive contribution.

We don’t see how anything improves with a smaller Marathon County board.

The county board should proudly remain the biggest in Wisconsin.