The Quest for Quiet Government

I know so little about Door County government and politics – so little, in fact, that even putting this confession down on paper for someone to read (even if those someones are mostly complete strangers) embarrasses me. I’ve lived in this county virtually all my life, and have yet to figure out what supervisory district my little apartment on County E happens to be in, no less what county board member represents my district. I read the paper, I feel like I’m involved in our county – yet the only thing I know about County Board Chairperson Charlie Most is that sometimes I see him at the YMCA.

So, of course, my lack of knowledge about virtually all areas of Door County government seemed even more ironic on Christmas Eve, when I had the good fortune to be waiting tables at the Mission Grille. My first table of the evening consisted of County Administrator Michael Serpe and his family. As is my custom with nicely-behaved tables, I made a bit of small talk, and asked the table if they were from Door County. Serpe mentioned that he lived in Door County – and his wife Deb mentioned that he worked as the County Administrator. And, having absolutely zero tact and even less shame, I asked a question that he most likely didn’t want to hear on the evening before a major holiday.

“County Administrator?” I questioned. “What does a County Administrator do, exactly?”

Even though County Administrator Serpe was at dinner with his family, he still explained the outline of his job, briefly but politely. Simply put, there are three types of county administrative positions – one can be an Administrative Coordinator, which is basically a clerical position; a County Administrator (Serpe), who is the chief operating officer for the county and the person who executes the policies and ordinances set by their respective County Board; and a County Executive, who actually has the power to veto the County Board.

“County governments play a pretty diverse role in the relationships between local and state governments,” Serpe says. “Door County’s County Board handles absolutely everything – it’s basically an administrative arm of the State of Wisconsin.”

Health and Human Services, Land Conservation and Development, UW-Extension, and Law Enforcement & Judiciary services are all under the county’s umbrella – and that’s just the beginning.

“We are a dedicated bunch,” Serpe adds. “The County of Door has a 60 million dollar budget. We see ourselves as efficient and careful stewards of the public purse, so to speak. All of the employees and board members I work with on the county level all take much pride in what we do.”

Serpe’s own background in civic responsibility began while he was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, where he majored in Political Science and Labor and Industrial Relations. While in college, he worked on Les Aspen’s first congressional campaign in 1970. With the exception of moving to New York for six years and his current position in Door County, Serpe has stayed close to his home in Kenosha. It was there that he served as an Alderman on behalf of the 5th District, was President of the Kenosha Public Library Board of Trustees for five years, and was Kenosha’s City Plan Commissioner for two. The eight years prior to his time in Door County was spent as the Administrative Assistant to the Kenosha County Executive while serving as a registered lobbyist for the County of Kenosha. In June 2008, he will celebrate two years as the County Administrator.

Looking at Serpe’s resume, it becomes obvious that he is extremely qualified for his current position. Besides serving on countless committees and boards in the civic sector, Serpe has also served as the President of the Wisconsin Coalition of Visiting Nurse Associations as well as a legislative consultant and lobbyist for the Wisconsin Homecare Association, which are two of the organizations that fall under the Health and Human Services umbrella.

When asked about the reason for his interest in county government, Serpe is quick to reply. “I’ve always enjoyed working in government, because it is about public service, pure and simple. Working in county government, you really get to see that public service working. This kind of government enables us to be the closest to the people we serve.”

When I ask him to explain further, he relates the story of the Catholic Church’s Works, or Acts, or Mercy. There are two sets of works – the Corporal Works of Mercy (relating to the material needs of others), and the Spiritual Works of Mercy (relating to the needs of one’s spirit).

“Twelve years of Catholic school will lead to this way of thinking,” Serpe laughs. “But when I think about the role of county government, I would say that we deliver all the services outlined in the Corporal Works of Mercy. Things like feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty – these seem like such simple things, but they are necessary for one’s survival. If a person has these things, it leads to a good quality of life. I like to think about county government in the same way. It’s done very quietly. There’s no fanfare, no campaigning. But if one’s county government is providing for its residents, the quality of life is there. If people don’t notice what I’m doing, that means I’m doing my job correctly.”

This is where I began to tell myself it was okay that I didn’t know who Serpe was at first. But I still had a few more questions.

“What is the difference between city or village government and the county government? And how exactly do you work with the County Board?” I asked.

“Basically, a city government can undertake anything that isn’t expressly prohibited by state statute or the constitution,” he says. “County government works a bit differently – we can only undertake a function that is expressly allowed or mandated by state statute or constitution. We can only do what the state tells us to do. As for my function within the County Board, the board is the legislative body that can pass an ordinance, or set a policy. It’s then my job to execute that ordinance or policy. In that way, it’s really no different than the relationship between the Board of Directors for a certain corporation and its President.”

Serpe has been coming up to Door County since 1975, when his family began camping in Peninsula State Park for a few weeks in the summer.

“This county has always been a part of my life,” he says. “My wife’s aunt and uncle purchased a home and retired here, and I had wanted to do that as well. When I found out about the County Administrator job, it seemed like the best of both worlds – getting to be active in government, and getting to do that in a place that I love.”

He looks out the window of his office on Nebraska Street, motions to the streets and the snow below, and smiles. “Life is really good here