August 7, 2018 – Washington Co., WI – Many people have asked me who they should vote for in the Sheriff election. My answer is always the same: both candidates are good, smart people and dedicated to serving the public through the Sheriff’s Office. I am not recommending one candidate over the other. However, whoever is elected will need the public’s vocal support to maintain the independence of the Office of Sheriff so he can fulfill his duties to the public.
Over the past few years, the County Board Executive Committee and Administrator have made shared services and even regional government a priority. There are also signs that county constitutional offices are in their sights.
While substantial changes in the structure of county government might sound unlikely, there is one example already in the works.
I am writing this article today because the next Sheriff, who will assume office in early 2019, will be pressured heavily to cooperate with the county board on these types of issues.
Several months ago, County Board Chairperson Don Kriefall informed me that he would like to see the Washington and Ozaukee County 911 Communication Centers combined into one. He stated that once completed, he felt the Germantown, West Bend and Hartford dispatch centers would be compelled to also join. Mr. Kriefall said that county sales tax money could be offered to the municipalities in exchange for combining the centers. Mr. Kriefall also thought the police departments should be disbanded and the Sheriff’s Office should be the only law enforcement agency in the county. In addition, he thought a “tri-county jail” should be pursued with Washington, Ozaukee and Waukesha Counties.
Gathering all my experience and knowledge on law enforcement, corrections, the courts, fire and EMS and public safety dispatching, along with county and local government services, I completely disagree with this vision.
Good government is all about right-sizing for the duty it is trying to fulfill and accountability to the community it serves. For public safety, the accountability comes from the personal connection between the agency and its constituents. When an agency has too many or too varied of responsibilities, it struggles as an organization to be personal and responsive to the public. If too small, it may lack resources and objectivity in its performance.
I personally believe Washington County residents could be served very well by one communications center. Law Enforcement, EMS and Fire Departments are working cooperatively on incidents more than ever. Just having the coordination done in person between dispatchers would improve everyone’s service level. But I also believe each city and village should make that informed choice. In 2010, county government made the offer to consolidate dispatch centers and the municipalities declined it, primarily for the reason of keeping it local and more personal.
A few years ago, Administrator Schoeman asked me if I thought those municipalities could be now convinced to combine their dispatch centers with the Sheriffs Center. My answer was no. He then suggested that if operation of the Communications Center and Radio System was transferred from the Sheriff to the Administrator (Mr. Schoeman) the municipalities would agree because his wasn’t a “political” position.
In my opinion, the County Administrator has become the most political position in Washington County government. This opinion is supported by Mr. Schoeman’s current plan to add a second full time Assistant Administrator who will serve as a lobbyist and communicator to other government entities. Mr. Schoeman and the Executive Committee’s focus is not on delivering necessary services to the public, but influencing (politicize) all areas of government into regionalizing. Having a county-wide Communications Center and Radio System operated by the Administrator would politicize it. Mr. Kriefall stated he would incentivize the municipalities with sales tax money. This is just the beginning of public safety being steered by politics instead of what is in the best interest of the community.
Currently, and for at least the past 30 years, no single government position in Washington County is more involved in all areas of public safety than the Sheriff. It does not mean the Sheriff controls public safety, but he has a constitutional duty to ensure it is provided. The Sheriff is accountable to the people directly; not to mayors, administrators or elected boards.
The above example shows why maintaining jurisdictions and elected offices are important to government accountability. The separation of authority and responsibility is important. It may cost more to have multiple units of government, but without them you will have no accountability to the people. Regional governments are only one step away from a single authoritarian state government.
Over the past few years, I have discussed with both candidates for Sheriff the above stated ideas and how they relate to the Sheriff’s authority and responsibility for public safety. I believe both agree the Sheriff should remain in charge of the county Communication Center and Radio System and that combining with another county would be a mistake. I also believe that both candidates agree that municipalities would have to join the county Communication Center voluntarily and if they did, that the Sheriff should remain in charge for it to be successful.
Lastly, I believe both candidates think the Sheriff should make decisions based on sound public safety policy, not to gain favor with the County Board. You, as citizens, have a role here in maintaining the separation of authorities and duties between the Sheriff and County Board.
In my opinion, public safety is best served by adhering to the Constitution, not to the politics of the day. If you agree, then support the next Sheriff when these battles with the County Board come.
Dale K. Schmidt, Washington County Sheriff
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