Learning the ropes of democracy
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America,” Monroe County Judge Richard Radcliffe quoted while welcoming students from Cashton Schools and Sparta High Point to the Monroe County Justice Center for Student Government Day Wednesday morning.
The purpose of the Government Day program is to teach students about government operations within the county, giving them an opportunity to engage in activities with a few elected officials and administrative staff in various county departments.
Radcliffe explained “government” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. He said the Constitution establishes the three levels of government; the judicial branch, the legislative branch and the executive branch.
“All of your lives are probably touched in one way or another by government. Do you know anybody who works in law enforcement? How about someone who serves in the military? Do you have anybody that you know that works for the county or the township who plows our roads, maintains our fields, parks? That’s all government. That’s our government working for us,” he said. “We’re the people and all of us here today are working for you and for your parents, your friends and your neighbors. That’s what government means to me.”
The students were given the opportunity to see a glimpse of how several different branches of government operate, including the practice of discussing and voting on laws and resolutions.
In the Assembly Room, with the guidance of board members Cedric Schnitzler and Mary VonRuden, as well as County Clerk Shelly Bohl and Parliamentarian Andrew Kaftan, the students held a mock session discussing a county sugar tax. They had been debating an “official resolution” in the classroom prior to their visit so they could get the opportunity to sit in the county board seats to debate and vote as the County Board would.
“Parliamentary rules are designed to allow for everybody who is a member of the body to have a fair say during the meeting and to make sure you progress through the items that have to be addressed appropriately,” Kaftan explained. “We have open meeting laws in the State of Wisconsin and we have to identify what we’re going to talk about as a government body so that if anyone wants to observe it they can come and observe the meeting.”
The kids also toured the 911 Communications Center where they were shown the daily operations of taking emergency calls from Mollie Ostrander, who works as a full-time dispatcher with Monroe County.
According to Ostrander, the dispatch center covers the 900 square miles of Monroe County, which serves about 45,000 people. In 2017, the communications center took over 75,000 calls, of those 11,000 of them were 911 calls.
They heard presentations from Monroe County Sheriff Scott Perkins, Lieutenant Ronald Rader and Chief Deputy Robert Conroy representing the Sheriff’s Office, Monroe County Jail and Emergency Management.
The students stepped outside to hear from the Land Conservation Director Bob Micheel, Soil and Water Conservationist Christina Mulder and Parks & Forestry Director Chad Ziegler. The group walked to Beaver Creek to learn about erosion and how runoff enters the lakes, rivers and streams during a rainstorm.
“Anything that’s going on in the landscape can end up in the creek,” Micheel explained.
Mulder talked to the kids about the equipment conservationists use and the projects they have completed including last year’s stream restoration, placement of fish habitat and stabilization of the creeks banks.
Ziegler talked to the group about the 7,000 acres of county forest scattered throughout the county his department manages. He said his department also manages wildlife and recreation, including McMullen Memorial County Park in Warrens.
The kids also sat in on presentations from Human Services, the Health Department and the Monroe County Humane Officer.
In the afternoon, the students were given presentations on courthouse services. They were able to view some actual court proceedings, talk with a court reporter and learn about several other departments including the Clerk of Court, Child Support and Bailiff.
Some continued presentations on courthouse services were given by the public defender, the district attorney, victim services and the Justice System Director Eric Weihe.
The ultimate goal for county officials during Student Government Days is to educate participating students to encourage them to become better citizens who may educate their peers as well and perhaps someday in the near future choose a profession in local government.