Led by a Cottage Grove supervisor, members of the Dane County Board voted on Oct. 15 against reducing its number of seats, overwhelmingly saying that could dilute its rural voice.
Supervisor Melissa Ratcliff, who represents District 36 in the Cottage Grove area, sought to keep a proposed drop from 37 to 35 board seats from going forward.
After lengthy discussion, the board voted 32-4 to stay at 37 seats.
Supervisor Jeremy Levin, whose District 10 spans parts of Madison and Shorewood Hills, called the vote “one of the most lopsided,” he has seen in seven terms on the County Board.
Kate McGinnity, who represents District 37 that includes Cambridge and Deerfield, joined those who spoke out against the proposed change.
McGinnity said reducing the number of seats on the board, and then redrawing district lines based on population, would concentrate the number of seats and voting power in the Madison area.
McGinnity said such a move would “compromise our rural representation and negatively impact our rural constituents,” and force rural supervisors to cover larger geographical areas.
She said District 37 already spans about 130 square miles, with nine village and town boards and 5 school districts.
From her home in the Cambridge area, “it already takes me 40 minutes to get to a couple of municipalities,” McGinnity said, adding that “this is the issue from which I have heard the most in my rural district.”
“In 100 percent of my communications the message was the same: please don’t reduce the size of the board. The people who would pay inequitably for that decision would be rural constituents.”
Ratcliff, in introducing her amendment to a proposal recently recommended by the County Board’s Executive Committee, said “we think 37 is a good number,” and said there are good arguments, in fact, for enlarging the board.
“While two seats may not seem like a big deal, it could have quite a few ramifications,” Ratcliff said. “Each of our communities is unique and special and deserve to have representation.”
Ratcliff said after a decade of working to increase representation of women and people of color on the County Board “decreasing the number of districts now…makes reaching residents more difficult and gives each resident a smaller voice. Who benefits and who is burdened? Who does not have a voice at the table? Rural voices will be diluted and drowned out.”
In his time on the board, “I have seen the board lower the numbers twice. Both times it was used to lower the number of rural seats,” said Supervisor Dave Ripp of the Waunakee area.
“We are not asking for more than we have, we are asking to keep what we have,” said Mazomanie-area Supervisor Michele Doolan.
Some supervisors, meanwhile, urged the board to move forward with eliminating the two seats.
“I appreciate rural Wisconsin,” Levin said. However, “the fact that we keep two more seats doesn’t actually do anything to keep more rural districts. If more people move into Madison or Middleton or Sauk Prairie, that is where the seat goes.”
“Our last redistricting represented rural communities pretty well,” compacting districts geographically and by “communities of interest,” Levin added.
District 6 Supervisor Yogesh Chawla, of Madison, argued that 37 is an uneven number that doesn’t allow for consistent numbers of supervisors on committees.
“With 35 we would have the same number of people on each standing committee,” he said.
Chawla also said he’s concerned about a sense that the board is divided by urban and rural constituencies and issues.
“Just because you represent a specific district does not mean your concerns are not countywide,” Chawla said.
And “just because people live closer together doesn’t mean they don’t require services, and in some cases…they require higher touch. It’s hard to represent urban districts as well. It’s hard to be on the County Board, period,” Chawla said.
Simply living in Madison “doesn’t mean that we are Madison-centric,” Supervisor Matt Veldran agreed.