Filtering Advice: As local government gets more complex, towns lean more on consultants

Twenty-five years ago the main road through Egg Harbor bled roughly into the dusty ditches and yards of its residents. In the heart of town old sidewalks, cracked and heaving with age, connected a half-mile stretch of shops, residences, a tiny post office, and the small village grocery.

The public library was housed in a cozy space in what is now the Granary Shops (it was a lumberyard many years prior), and town meetings were held in an old wood-frame hall near the village entrance.

In those days annual budgets were small, and village staffers were mostly part-time. A small Door County town could be run relatively simply by its residents using a little smarts and a lot of good old common sense.

But things have changed, says Egg Harbor Village Administrator Josh Van Lieshout.

“The days of being able to call a town board meeting and stand in the middle of the road and make a decision are long gone,” he says.

Today, residents and visitors alike expect and want much more from local government. New sidewalks, curb and gutter, sewer, and parklands have all been added in Egg Harbor in the past two decades. A community center to house the post office, library, and village meetings was built. And the open fields, orchards, and woods that surrounded the village not long ago are dotted with condos, single family homes, and vacation rentals, not to mention the roads, sidewalks, and lighting to accompany them.

The village board still consists of a group of dedicated locals – a resort owner, a retired mechanic, a restaurant and retail manager – but the issues they grapple with are far more complicated than a couple decades ago.

Van Lieshout recognizes the growing complexity. The 34-year-old UW-Green Bay graduate (Environmental Policy and Planning) got his first taste of local government as an administrator in Dodgeville, where he learned one lesson quickly.

“I realized there are lots of rules in local government,” he says, “and you better follow them because there’s somebody out there who knows them all.”

With the wide range of rules, regulations, and issues that now come before local boards, it’s impossible for local officials to make all the decisions on their own. Increasingly they turn to consultants for advice and guidance.

“Nobody can be the best at everything in the world, so you come to someone who knows a lot about a particular subject,” says Nate Novak, a landscape architect with JJR engineers, which has consulted with several Door County municipalities on development, planning, and marinas.

But consultants such as JJR often stand to make a profit off the potential decisions a board might make on a project. It creates a dilemma for those sifting through their advice, begging the question of how citizens know their town isn’t being steered by private profit motive.

Sister Bay Administrator Bob Kufrin said transparency is the best safeguard.

“We try to make sure decisions are made and discussion is done in a very public manner, involving as many people and perspectives as possible,” he says. “We also make sure the consultant is taking comments into account and being responsive to the community.”

Sturgeon Bay Alderman Ben Meyer agreed. He says consultants have a powerful motivation to produce quality results.

“They want to impress a community so they will be brought back,” he says.

Chris Anderson is in his third year on the Egg Harbor Board of Trustees. He says reliance on consulting firms requires a delicate balancing act on the part of the municipality.

“You try to take in a lot of different perspectives,” he says. “Part of it is getting as much outside input as we can and make sure it’s not completely one-sided.”

JJR has been in the business 40 years and has no motive to nudge a municipality in an unwanted direction, Novak says.

“Pushing towns to do something is something we never do,” he says. “Our first interest is always to give the community something they want and will be happy with.”

In Gills Rock the firm is helping to guide plans for a proposed marina project that is unpopular among many residents.

“In Gills Rock, we’re not trying to push the project in any one direction,” Novak says. “We’re trying to respond to what the community wants.

“A lot of what we do is educational, helping the community understand what they’re looking for. Do they want expansion, or more control? We work with them and come back with a package of options, making sure we are preparing something that is going to work. We try to figure out what’s really important to the people and work our way down from there.”

Novak says it’s key to get a lot of public input early on in the process. Nothing is more frustrating, he says, than getting far into a project and finding out there was a whole user group they didn’t hear input from.

“Whether you’re getting paid for it or not, it’s frustrating to have to redo something,” he says.

Consultants have to toe a fine line between providing information, and telling a governing body how to act.

“We’re here to help guide the project, but we can’t make the call. We don’t live here, and it’s not our money,“ Novak says.

Van Lieshout says it’s important to remember that dealing with consultants is like dealing with employees.

“Our duty is to tell them exactly what we want and always keep in mind that they work for us,” he says. “There’s always the concern that someone’s benefitting from it, but of course they are, that’s their job.”

Van Lieshout says the high cost of capital improvement projects today makes the added cost of using industry experts more palatable.

“The 10 percent you spend in consulting fees will save you a lot of money down the road,” he says. “The cost of capital projects has increased tremendously. A do-over is not really an option.”

So with those high costs and layers of regulation, are state and federal officials making local government too difficult?

“I don’t know that it’s more difficult,” Van Lieshout says. “It’s definitely more work. Ten to fifteen years ago we just let all the rain water run off into the ditch and into the soil and into the lake. Was that smart? Probably not. Does it cost more to manage it? Yes. Does it add to the permitting process? Yes. But it’s probably the right thing to do.”

And for small-town government, it’s not going to get any easier.

JJR has worked on several development projects in Door County since 2000, including the Gills Rock Marina, Sister Bay Waterfront Park planning, Egg Harbor Marina reconstruction and expansion, and the Sister Bay Sports Complex. JJR has offices in Madison, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C. More on JJR can be found at