J.B. VAN HOLLEN
Raymond P. Taffora
Deputy Attorney General
114 East, State Capitol
P.O. Box 7857
Madison, WI 53707-7857
June 8, 2007 OAG – 1 – 07
Post Office Box 1001
Elkhorn, WI 53121-1001
BodyStart You ask whether the chairperson of a county board may be removed from that position only for cause by a two-thirds vote of the board under Wis. Stat. § 17.10 (2005-06), or whether the chairperson may be removed at the will of a simple majority of the board under Wis. Stat. § 59.12 (2005-06). I have concluded that the less demanding procedures of Wis. Stat. § 59.12 apply to the removal of the chairperson from that position on the county board. Wisconsin Stat. § 17.10(2) provides that “[c]ounty officers appointed by the county board may be removed by the county board for cause. All removals may be made by an affirmative vote of two-thirds of the supervisors entitled to seats on the county board.”
This section does not apply to the removal of the chairperson of a county board for two reasons. First, the chairperson of a county board is not a county officer by virtue of that position. Second, the chairperson of a county board is not appointed by the board.
Wisconsin Stat. § 17.10(2) applies only to persons who are removed from a position that makes them a county officer or, arguably in some cases, a county employee. All members of a county board are county officers. Wis. Stat. § 59.10(3)(d) (2005-06). As a member of the county board, Wis. Stat. § 59.12(1), the chairperson of the board is a county officer by virtue of his or her membership on the board. However, ending the tenure of a member of the county board as chair of the board does not oust that member from the board but only from a particular position on the board. The member loses the chair but not their seat on the board. So Wis. Stat. § 17.10(2) would apply to the removal of the chairperson of a county board only if the chairperson was a county officer, separately and distinctly from being a member of the board, solely by virtue of being the chairperson of the board. The Legislature has expressly identified the principal officers of a county, in addition to members of the county board, in Wis. Stat. ch. 59. However, the chairperson of a county board is not identified anywhere in this chapter as a county officer separate and distinct from being a member of the board. Nor is there any other provision regarding county offices which suggests that the chairperson of a county board is county officer separate and distinct from being a member of the board. The Legislature’s failure to include the chairperson of the county board among those identified as county officers is itself strong evidence that the chairperson is not a county officer in his or her own right under the principle that the express inclusion of some in the statutes implies the exclusion of all others. See generally Northwest Airlines, Inc. v. DOR, 2006 WI 88, ¶ 50, 293 Wis. 2d 202, 717 N.W.2d 280. This inference is confirmed by the judiciallyestablished criteria for determining who is a public officer. Whether a person who holds a government position is a public officer, including a county officer, depends primarily on the nature of the power instilled in the position by legislative delegation. Wis. Law Enforcement Stds. Bd. v. Vill. of Lyndon Station, 98 Wis. 2d 229, 240-41, 295 N.W.2d 818 (Ct. App. 1980), aff’d, 101 Wis. 2d 472, 305 N.W.2d 89 (1981); Burton v. State Appeal Bd., 38 Wis. 2d 294, 300, 303, 156 N.W.2d 386 (1968). Persons cannot be public officers, however chosen, unless they have been given authority to exercise some of the sovereign power of government. Law Enforcement Stds. Bd., 98 Wis. 2d at 240; Burton, 38 Wis. 2d at 300-01.
The chairperson of a county board has not been delegated any sovereign power above and beyond the power given to other members of the board and the board as a whole.
The chairperson has been delegated power to administer oaths to persons required to be sworn concerning matters before the board, to countersign all ordinances enacted by the board and to preside at meetings of the board. Wis. Stat. § 59.12(1). If directed by an ordinance enacted by the board, the chairperson may also countersign county orders, transact board business with local and county officers, expedite measures resolved upon by the board or take care that all laws pertaining to county government are enforced. Id. These are mostly administrative and ministerial powers directed at facilitating decisions made by the board in the exercise of the board’s powers of government. Moreover, the powers in addition to those given by Wis. Stat. § 59.12(1) are not delegated to the chairperson by the Legislature but by the county board.
Furthermore, public officers must be able to exercise their powers independently, without the control of a superior officer or body. Law Enforcement Stds. Bd., 98 Wis. 2d at 240; Burton, 38 Wis. 2d at 300.
But the powers of a county as a body corporate can only be exercised by the county board, or pursuant to a resolution adopted or ordinance enacted by the board. Wis. Stat. § 59.02(1) (2005-06). So whatever power the chairperson of a county board exercises is subject to the ultimate control of the board.
Finally, a public officer must hold office by virtue of a commission or other written authority, must take an oath of office and give an official bond. Law Enforcement Stds. Bd., 98 Wis. 2d at 240; Burton, 38 Wis. 2d at 300.
The chairperson of a county board does not hold office by virtue of any written authority but is simply elected by the members of the board. Wis. Stat. § 59.12(1). And there is no requirement that the chairperson take an oath or give a bond to hold that position, apart from the oath required as a member of the board. See Wis. Stat. § 59.21(1) (2005-06).
Therefore, the chairperson of a county board is not a county officer by virtue of holding the position of chair.
The chairperson of a county board is obviously not a county employee either.
An employee is someone who works for someone else, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 604 (3d ed. 1996); Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 743 (unabridged ed. 1986), something a county board chair does not do.
Moreover, statutory definitions of “public employee” indicate that a public employee is someone who is not a public officer. Wis. Stat. §§ 19.32(1bg) and 939.22(30) (2005-06). And while the chairperson of a county board is not a public officer by virtue of being the chairperson of the board, he or she is a public officer by virtue of being a member of the board.