Outside of K-12 school district referendums, 129 other measures are on the ballot this fall for voters to decide.
Questions range from asking to establish a nonpartisan redistricting commission and creating more oversight on Brown County health officials, to allowing residents to drive ATVs on town or county roads.
Besides school referendums, which WisPolitics.com covered in a previous report, the most common question on the ballot is asking residents to move the town clerk or town treasurer from an elected position to an appointed one.
A March WisPolitics.com review of spring election referendums found towns were seeking to appoint clerks and treasurers due to a lack of interested and qualified candidates in rural communities.
Of the 129 non-school referendums around the state, 67 ask to switch to appointments. And town officials tell WisPolitics.com the reasonings are still largely the same.
For the Town of Cable in Bayfield County, this will be the board’s fourth attempt at passing such a measure. It last tried in April this year but the vote failed with 148 counts for the change and 209 against.
The referendum asks residents if they’ll allow the town board to appoint the clerk and treasurer “based on qualifications after an established procedure and subject to review procedures.”
Town Board Chair Brett Rondeau told WisPolitics.com he’s for the change because the clerk and treasurer positions need someone enthusiastic and qualified for the job, and he worries elections come down to “a popularity contest.”
“I think people just don’t want to think that we’re taking away their right to vote for a clerk and a treasurer,” he said. “And I realize that’s what you think we’re doing, but we’re trying to get some stability in here.”
He said it can take up to a year for a new clerk to fully understand how to file reports to the state and administer elections. And with each term only lasting two years, that doesn’t leave much time before they need to start worrying about reelection.
This is Rondeau’s second town clerk referendum attempt while serving as chair. And while he said he’s been advocating for the change and he thinks the vote will be close, many residents are still “set in their ways” and he doesn’t know what November’s results will bring.
Mike Koles, executive director for the Wisconsin Towns Association, largely agreed with Rondeau’s sentiment that a sparse population and increasing complexity is forcing citizens to reevaluate who should get the job.
He said the state has lost a number of clerks in recent years as the rules around conducting elections have become more complicated.
“And I expect we’re going to in this cycle, as well, due to the election changes,” he said. “They just get really frustrated and that frustration level is at an all-time high because of some of the lawsuits and everything that’s been going on with COVID.”
Rondeau said the Cable clerk is administering five different elections this year: the spring primary, the spring general, a 7th CD special election, the fall primary and the fall general.
Elected clerks in the state must also be local residents of the area they represent. Koles said switching to an appointed position allows the town to deepen its pool of potential candidates and also makes it easier to raise the job’s salary to be more attractive.
While Koles agreed residents in some towns are reluctant to do away with an elected position and change something that’s “largely been the same for 100 plus years,” he said he’s heard support for the move varies widely from town to town, with some areas fully on board.
Additionally, some 15 referendums throughout Wisconsin will ask locals if they’d support a nonpartisan redistricting commission to avoid gerrymandered drawing of the legislative map.
Ahead of the election, 53 of 72 counties, representing 75 percent of the state’s total population, have already passed resolutions asking the Legislature to approve bills establishing a nonpartisan commission, according to the Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition.
Brown County Board Supervisor Megan Borchardt said she expects her county’s referendum on the commission to pass. But she remains skeptical it will lead to any real changes in how things work in Madison.
“You would think that our state Legislature would listen to their own constituents and move forward with things, but that doesn’t seem to happen,” she said, pointing to a previous Brown County ask to close the so-called “dark store” loophole giving big-box stores property tax breaks.
Brown County locals this fall are also voting on a second, “more contentious” referendum, which Borchardt attributes to the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic. It asks residents whether the board should have oversight over the county health officer’s emergency response policy.
Brown County has the only health official oversight question on the ballot this November. And both referendums in the county are non-binding, as they would require state lawmakers to change statute.
Borchardt, who serves as vice-chair of the board’s health committee, said the board currently has a good relationship with the county’s health officer. She added the officer is “doing the best they can under the circumstances.”
But she said some other supervisors and members of the public worry the position is too independent and needs to be held more accountable in case there is a clash in the future.
She referred to how Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide mask mandate divided locals, with supervisors receiving a plethora of emails from constituents, some in favor of the mandate and some steadfastly opposed as an infringement on personal freedoms.
Some other referendums include:
*Six different towns and Buffalo County want to know if the recreational use of All Terrain Vehicles should be allowed on local roads, with some safety exceptions.
*The cities of Superior and Cudahy ask residents if they should establish a city administrator position to help manage day-to-day operations.
*A question asking if a portion of the Town of Greenville in Outagamie County should incorporate into a village.
*Twenty-five different requests in 11 villages, nine towns, four cities and Dunn County to raise property tax levy limits for various construction projects and the expansion of local firefighter and paramedic positions, as well as other services.
See a full referendum list here (Excel file).