Local government dates back some 500 years when it was established by various Native American tribes. Almost five centuries ago, Wisconsin tribes entered into a type of Federal Union. Most of the early inhabitants looked to the village to determine the rules to live by.
In 1848 when Wisconsin became a state, the constitution contained several specific provisions for local government. The Wisconsin Constitution, Article IV, Section 23, Chapter 60 of the Wisconsin Statutes pertains specifically to town government, and Chapter 66 of the Wisconsin Statutes applies to towns, villages and cities.
Towns were created by the state to provide basic municipal services. By constitutional requirement, towns must be as uniform as practicable and can perform only those duties specifically authorized by state law. State statutes spell out in detail the powers of town officers and how to conduct day-to-day operations. In Wisconsin, towns are geographical subdivisions of counties, usually following the boundaries of surveyors’ townships.
In Wisconsin, “township” refers to the surveyors’ township, which was typically a square measuring 6 miles on a side for a total of 36 square miles in the unit. “Town” as used in Wisconsin denotes a specific unit of government, which may or may not coincide with the surveyors’ township.
Town Government Structure
The functions and organization of town government are spelled out in Chapters 60 and 66 of the state statutes which delineate the responsibilities and limits for the town officials’ duties.
The primary activities focus on maintaining roads, providing public improvements and enforcing regulations as required by state and local government.
State law requires each town to hold an annual meeting open to all qualified electors who are age 18 or older and have resided in the town for at least 10 days. This serves as the legislative body for the town, and must convene at least annually in April. Special town meetings may be called by the town board, by those gathered at a town meeting, or at the request of a specified number of electors.
The town board, elected in odd numbered yrs at the spring election, is the “executive branch” of town government. It handles day-to-day decision making. The board usually consists of the chair and two “side” supervisors. The chair presides at town meetings, board meetings and is generally seen as the key contact for the town. Towns exercising village powers may choose to have a three- or five-member board. If the town has a population greater than 2500 the town meeting may direct the board to increase its size to 5 members with staggered elections each yr.
A variety of officials and employees perform the work of town government
The clerk acts as the secretary to the town board, conducts elections, maintains records and prepares the budget and tax rolls.
The treasurer collects taxes and other fees, pays bills and keeps financial accounts.
The assessor values all town property for tax purposes Many towns contract with firms or individuals for assessor services.
All elected officials are chosen for a two-year term in the spring nonpartisan election.
There are other appointed officials depending on the needs of the town.
Towns must use a caucus to nominate a candidate for a town or village office if the nomination paper method has not been authorized by the electors.
This summary of town governance was prepared by Jim Patrick, previous Town Chairman, and is based on information gleaned from the 1997-98 Wisconsin Blue Book.