How does an unelected county administrator increase democracy or accountability?

On election day voters in Milwaukee County will have an opportunity to make their voices heard on four non-binding referendum questions.

Among those questions is this:

Should Wisconsin Statutes be amended to allow Milwaukee County to transition its management and administrative functions from an elected County Executive to a professional County Administrator?

That seems like a pretty straightforward question, and no doubt it’s a question that will elicit strong responses from those voters in Milwaukee County who support County Executive Chris Abele and believe in a stronger executive and from those who believe the County Board of Supervisors should have more authority in Milwaukee County. Among those who believe in a weaker (or non-existent) executive and a stronger County Board is Chris “capper” Liebenthal of Cognitive Dissidence. According to Liebenthal, here are the reasons for doing away with an elected County Executive and moving to an unelected (but appointed by the County Board) county administrator.

That can be explained in three words: Democracy, Accountability, Efficiency.

As I have explained before, the last three county executives have been real pips. We have had Tom Ament and his pension scandal. We have had Scott Walker who used the executive’s office as his campaign headquarters for his run for governor. We currently have Chris Abele who is using the office to further enrich himself and his plutocratic pals at the taxpayer expense.

Not one of these three were representing the people of Milwaukee County. They were only in it for their own personal gain. With a county administrator, we would be able to restore a representative form of government, with county supervisors who would represent the people of their districts and keep each other in check.

Furthermore, with a county administrator, there would be accountability. If Ament, Walker or Abele had been county administrators and did what they had done as county executives, the board could have acted swiftly to remove them and save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Having read and re-read Liebenthal’s points, I’m left with a few questions.

For instance, I can’t help but wonder how eliminating an office elected by the citizens of Milwaukee County will actually increase democracy, which is the argument Liebenthal seems to make. After all, among the arguments made against downsizing the County Board was that such a measure would actually decrease the amount of democracy in Milwaukee County, so it seems only logical that eliminating an elected position would do the same.

I’m also wondering how there would be any more accountability with an unelected county administrator than there is for the elected County Executive. After all, the County Executive is held accountable every four years by the voters of Milwaukee County, while an unelected county administrator would not be accountable to the voters. Elections are absolutely about holding elected officials accountable, and if the voters of Milwaukee County feel Chris Abele has not acted in their best interests, voters will most definitely hold him accountable and vote him out of office.

Look, I get that Chris Abele is a pariah to many Democrats/liberals who supported him hoping they were electing a progressive, and there’s absolutely no denying that some of his actions as County Executive (such as his treatment of rank-and-file employees and his handling of labor issues) have been absolutely awful, but supporting efforts to eliminate his office because you don’t like the man reeks of exactly the kind of politicking those very same folks were decrying when the County Board of Supervisors were being targeted. I’m of the belief that if folks aren’t happy with the job Chris Abele has done as County Executive, they should work to get someone else elected, instead of working to eliminate the elected office he holds.


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7 thoughts on “How does an unelected county administrator increase democracy or accountability?

  1. You misunderstand the purpose of the referendum. The vote is not to select the County Executive form of government or County Administrator form. It is a vote to “allow” Milwaukee County to decide for themselves.

    Milwaukee County is the only County that has required to have the County Exec form of government since 1960. Act 14 expanded the powers of the County Executive (such as the authority to write $99,999 checks from the County to anyone with no oversight) but Milwaukee voters have no choice but to accept this new “Super County Executive” form of government.

    This referendum would increase democracy because it could lead to a binding referendum that would allow Milwaukee County residents to decide their form of government. It could even be held in the Fall so we could get higher than 10% turnout … seems like democracy to me.

    1. I don’t misunderstand the purpose of the referendum; I’m simply wondering how eliminating an elected office (as those who support the referendum would want) would increase democracy or accountability.

    2. If you think Republicans in Madison will put a binding referendum on the ballot to eliminate the Milwaukee County Executive position and make the largely progressive County Board more powerful, then you’re not as smart as you think you are.

  2. A County Administrator would be chosen by the County Board. It’d be hard to argue that the Board is not more representative of the County than a Spring electorate. An Admin would also eliminate the gridlock caused by a Board and Exec in constant opopposition, which does not lead to a neutral result, it benefits conservatives like Walker and Abele.

    But again, you either misunderstand the referendum or are purposeful misstating the position of the pro-democracy advocates.

    1. Sure, but a County Executive is elected by residents of the entire county, where the Supervisors are only elected by their smaller constituencies.

      I’m just having a hard time understanding how eliminating an elected office gives voters more democracy, because it seems the opposite would be true.

  3. Isn’t the County Board electing the County Executive kind of like Congress electing the President? Where is a separation of power and accountability?

    1. Our county has taken much of the potential politicizing of the position out of the equation since they hired a county administrator a decade or so ago. Re-examining the position as a new administrator needs to be hired, the County Board of supervisors voted 80% in favor of NOT having an elected county executive and sticking with the county administrator position option.

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