As Herb Tennies approaches 50 years on the Washington County Board, eight years as chairman, he is leading the way to a modernized management structure for county operations.
With power and authority splintered all over the place, it has always been hard to tell who was calling the shots in Washington County. Accountability was always an issue. Strategic direction has never been a long suit.
Informal leadership, of course, always took place behind the curtain. In one long period, the strongest leader was the county corporation counsel. In other times, it was the chairman making the calls behind closed doors.
That said, a lot of very good people have served the county, both on the board and in the government. They did their best to make a clunky system of government work. So, the county is in decent shape. There have been big mistakes, but none were fatal. Corruption has never been an issue, unlike county operations to the south.
Over the last several years, Tennies has quietly led the board through a series of steps toward the day sometime down the road when the citizens of the county will get to elect a county executive. That is what all citizens want — to elect their leaders. Thirteen of Wisconsin’s 72 counties elect their executives.
For now, though, the Washington County Board has taken a huge interim step forward by moving to a county administrator form of government. In addition to the budget drafting leverage, the new administrator will be able to hire and fire department heads. They will report to him on day-to-day operations. The board’s committees still will be there for policy direction, as will the elected board as a whole.
A partial step was the creation of a county manager position, a step up from the weakest system, that of administrative coordinator.
The new position will be held by Joshua Schoemann, who replaced Doug Johnson in 2013. Johnson held the thankless coordinator role for 15 years. While Schoemann is new to the county, early reports on his performance are positive.
That probably gave the supervisors the confidence to make the move from manager to administrator.
It’s good news for citizens. They will have a better idea of where the buck stops in county government. On big policy questions, it will still be the board. On operational matters, it will be Tennies and Schoemann.
Even better, the board, Tennies and Schoemann are now looking at reorganizing the board’s governance, including a reduction in the size of the 30-person board. I doubt if there is a citizen in the county who wouldn’t say that the board is too big, that it could operate at 15 supervisors instead of 30.
And, surely no citizen would disagree that dozens of committees is too many. So a consolidation of those committees is very much in order.
All in all, it’s good to see the major moves to more efficient and effective management of the county.
Thanks for the leadership, Herb.
(John Torinus is chairman of the board of Serigraph Inc. in West Bend and a past editor of the Daily News.)