News media are devoting a lot of space and time these days to reporting on people who applauded Donald Trump’s attacks on government and voted to make him president but are now realizing with remorse that he plans to shrink or eliminate government programs that benefit them.
Antipathy for government is an easily acquired over-the-counter palliative for what ails voters economically or socially. Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” infested by government insiders, his right-hand man Steve Bannon’s pledge to “deconstruct the administrative state” and their use of the term “bureaucrat” as a pejorative dripping with contempt were dependable applause lines.
Yet when the cheering dies down, the reality that society can’t function without government remains—along with the reality that government can’t function without professionals to do the work of government.
This is true at the federal and state levels, but some of the most affirming examples of it can be found in local government, which brings us to Tom Meaux, who retired last week as the Ozaukee County administrator.
An undiscerning government critic judging Meaux from his resume might have called him a denizen of the swamp. He was, after all, a card-carrying member of the government class, a man who spent almost his entire working life in government, much of it as a paid government employee—a bureaucrat.
That misjudgment is the kind of mistake that can be made when people carelessly accept cliches of bureaucratic dysfunction.
Meaux’s career of service and accountability to the public, marked by exceptional competence, is a perfect counter to those perceptions.
In his 17 years of work for Ozaukee County, Meaux oversaw the honing of county government into an efficiently functioning institution that improved services while maintaining the lowest county tax rate in Wisconsin.
By the time he was hired by Ozaukee County, Meaux had served as a state legislator, a Milwaukee County Board member and the Milwaukee County treasurer. In his new job in the courthouse in Port Washington, he stepped into a county government that reflected an occasionally unruly grass-roots democracy in which policy was made by elected representatives serving constituencies as diverse as Mequon gentry and northern Ozaukee farmers and carried out by an overworked county clerk.
As expected, the new administrator streamlined administrative operations, but he also streamlined the workings of the County Board by building relationships and fostering compromise among members and then effectively executing their decisions.
Much was accomplished on Meaux’s watch, but perhaps his signature achievement was the salvation of Lasata, the county-owned nursing home in Cedarburg. In the face of intense pressure to abandon a publicly owned institution that was losing money, Meaux and County Board leaders crafted a bold plan that saved the nursing home by adding assisted-living units to the Lasata campus and using their profits to subsidize the nursing home services valued so dearly by county residents at no expense to taxpayers.
Some of his most valuable efforts on behalf of the people of Ozaukee County were not of the brick and mortar variety, but may be more lasting. These include his guidance of the restoration of the historic courthouse and the splendid public art in its boardroom and his part in the county’s participation in environmental-preservation partnerships, including the creation of the Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve in the Town of Grafton.
Meaux’s success also serves as a lesson that ideological differences need not inhibit the efficient process of government, as is so often the case at the state and national levels. He was a big-city Democrat working with the conservative Republicans who dominated the County Board. Some of the latter sung Meaux’s praises in an article in last week’s Ozaukee Press.
Meaux told the author of the article, Press editor Bill Schanen IV, that he chose his career because he was “fascinated by government and the challenge of making it more effective and responsible to the people it served.”
He met that challenge and in the process demonstrated that government service is a worthy calling.