County lawyer advises board not to vote on redistricting resolution

Gordon says controversial move seeking referendum is outside county’s authority
Ozaukee Press staff

The Ozaukee County Board should not vote on a controversial resolution that would place a referendum on the spring ballot urging the Legislature to adopt a non-partisan method of drawing new elected district lines, county Corporation Counsel Rhonda Gordon wrote to supervisors.

“It is my recommendation that the County Board decline to take action on this resolution,” she wrote in a lengthy memo. 

“The state Legislature’s delegation of authority to counties to issue advisory referenda is constrained to matters for which the state Legislature has delegated legislative power to counties. Factors courts have found significant when assessing the propriety of referendums would weigh heavily against us in passing a resolution authorizing this referendum.”

Even if the resolution were scaled back to not include a referendum, “it proposes a question regarding a matter outside of the County Board’s delegated legislative powers,” Gordon concluded.

The issue has generated considerable interest in the county, including a packed meeting room in early December when supervisors voted 16-10 to delay voting on the issue until Jan. 15 to give Gordon more time to research the issue.

One of the resolution’s supporters, Mequon Supr. Jennifer Rothstein, said she’s never seen such an outpouring of support for an issue.

“Through my 14 years (on the County Board) I have not seen as much public involvement as with this issue,” she said, adding that she has received dozens of emails, letters and phone calls supporting the resolution.

“It’s such a simple request. The resolution is non-binding, it doesn’t force any of the supervisors to take a stand; it just simply allows our constituents to have a voice. I just don’t get it,” she said.

The referendum would ask that “the Wisconsin Legislature create a nonpartisan procedure for the preparation of state legislative and congressional district plans and maps.”

The resolution was submitted by supervisors Kathy Geracie, of Cedarburg Linda Krieg, of Cedarburg, Rob Holyoke, of Thiensville, and Mequon supervisors Justin Strom, David Henrichs, Janette Braverman, Alice Read and Rothstein.

Krieg predicted there will be a similar turnout at the Jan. 15 board meeting.

She’s said she’s hoping enough supervisors will side with the resolution’s sponsors to get it on the spring ballot.

“I guess we’ll just have to see. I’m hopeful because we did get the support to put the vote off for 30 days,” she said. “Most of my constituents who have reached out to me are in favor of it.”

The resolution appears to be modeled after one found on the Madison-based Wisconsin Democracy Campaign website, which also provided the “Fair Maps” signs that were on display at the board meeting.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign says 50 of the state’s 72 counties have passed a Fair Maps resolution going back to 2013, with eight counties passing the referendum since 2014, most recently in La Crosse and Vernon counties last April.

Gordon, however, said she doubts whether many of those counties conducted “a risk assessment analysis.”

“I am currently aware of only two other corporation counsels who have considered whether this type of resolution is proper and they have concluded these resolutions are not,” Gordon wrote.

In addition, she said, a Wisconsin Counties Association official held the same opinion that “these types of resolutions ... are not proper as they do not relate to county business.”

Critics say the movement to depoliticize the redistricting process is primarily led by those with Democratic Party connections, such as former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder, with the goal of wresting control from Republicans who control the majority of state houses.

Like most states, the Legislature in Wisconsin has charge of redrawing district maps following the once-a-decade census. The Republican Party held the majority in both houses of the Legislature in 2010 and today.

Five states — Iowa, Maine, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont — use appointed advisory commissions to help in the process.

County Board Chairman Lee Schlenvogt could not be reached by press time on whether the matter will be on the Jan. 15 agenda.

In an earlier interview, Schlenvogt said he opposed the resolution, saying the matter would introduce a political divide into the County Board.

“I’m afraid politics gets involved and then we have a split board,” Schlenvogt, who ran for state Senate in 2015 as a Republican, said. “I just don’t need a political divide in our board.”

State Rep. Rob Brooks, R-Saukville, a former Ozaukee County Board chairman, agreed and said the measure is a Democratic Party ploy to divest legislatures of their traditional powers.

“I think it’s right out of the Democratic  Party handbook,” Brooks said. “It’s a piece of sore loser legislation is what it is.”

The practice of elected officials drawing district boundaries is as old as the country itself, Brooks said. 

He noted that the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019 ruled that partisan redistricting is a political question and that federal courts can’t judge if extreme gerrymandering violates the Constitution.

He also disputed the claim that the process is unfair or produces skewed results, noting that Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Gov. Tony Evers, both Democrats, won in several districts that elected Republicans to the Assembly.

“I guess we gerrymandered it so that Tammy Baldwin won,” he said. 

Krieg and Rothstein said the issue was brought to them by constituents who were concerned about the matter.

“It wasn’t something that was hatched from a supervisor’s head,” she said.

Rothstein said she is “surprised and saddened” by the opposition to the resolution. She nevertheless is hopeful it will pass.

“I don’t have a crystal ball. I think it will be quite close,” she said. “I remain hopeful. I don’t think this is a very big ask of supervisors.”



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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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