By Dave Bretl
I will try my best to temper my enthusiasm. The last time I wrote about the county’s Journal of Proceedings book I remarked that I looked forward to its annual release as if it were the latest Dan Brown thriller. A few weeks later, during a question and answer session following a presentation I made, an audience member told me that if I really felt that way I should “get a life.” That person was probably right, but the book contains so much information that I can’t help but find it interesting.
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 2012 Journal, therefore, also includes the first three months of 2013. Our clerk, Kim Bushey, compiled the latest book in record time, releasing it shortly after the Board completed its March meeting.
The Journal is interesting to me at two levels. First, it provides a historical record of County Board activities. Clerks have been keeping these books for a long time. I have a duplicate copy from 1903 in my office, but much older editions are kept in the Clerk’s vault. Aside from learning some interesting history, however, the journals provide 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 a decade ago, have impacted the decision-making process. Two measures, contained in the journals, provide a sense of how the Board is accomplishing its work; these include communications and ordinances.
The term “communications” refers to a portion of the Board’s agenda that is reserved for letters and correspondence from the public, County staff and even Board Supervisors that provide information to the Board or urge a particular course of action. The number of communications processed by the Board rose dramatically following a 2002 amendment to the county’s operating rules. That change encouraged the use of such letters as a way 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 can commit their views to writing and submit them to the Board. These letters are distributed to each Supervisor and placed on the Board’s monthly agenda. 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 2012, this figure had increased to 115. Prior to looking at this year’s Journal, I would have sworn that the number of communications received by the Board has been increasing each year. In reality, ten years after the rule change, the numbers appear to be fairly stable. Supervisors were presented with 160 communications in 2010 and 148 in 2011.
A second trend, illustrated by the journals, is how the Board governs the county, through the adoption of resolutions and ordinances. In general, resolutions resolve issues on a case-by-case basis. Ordinances are of a more permanent nature and seek to deal with problems by establishing uniform 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 that the Board adopted few ordinances. Instead, resolutions were enacted to deal with issues on a case-by-case basis or committees and managers simply made decisions without guidance from the Board. It wasn’t until 1998 that a formal code book was maintained. In the three years immediately preceding codification, from 1994 to 1997, Supervisors adopted just thirty non-zoning ordinances. In 2012, alone, the Board considered 45 of them. As was the case with items of correspondence, the number of ordinances considered by the Board, on an annual basis, appears to have stabilized. Supervisors processed 55 and 53 ordinances in 2010 and 2011, respectively.
Aside from generating some interesting trivia, there is a point to all of this number-crunching; ordinances and communications present opportunities for elected leaders to make decisions. When the Board’s workload, as reflected by these two measures, was relatively low, it didn’t mean that decisions weren’t being made; it simply meant that decisions were being made by others, most often by staff. There is nothing wrong with allowing managers to manage their operations. Not all oversight by elected leaders, however, is “micromanagement.” Supervisors serve an important function when they establish policy and bring forward new ideas and constituent concerns. As measured by ordinances and communications, the County Board expanded its role, a decade ago, and continues to sustain this increased level of oversight. We will have to wait for the 2013 Journal of Proceedings to see whether this trend continues. At the risk of being told to “get a life,” I will admit that I can hardly wait until it is released.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors, this newspaper or Southern Lakes Newspapers LLC.