It's hard to imagine the Dane County Board without its current chair, Scott McDonell. McDonell was first elected to the board in 1996 - the same year he graduated from UW-Madison - taking over a seat vacated by Mark Pocan. He has been the board chair since 2005, leading the board's liberal majority.
But he's stepping down to take on the position he was elected to in November: Dane County clerk. He'll be sworn in Jan. 6. In an interview, McDonell assesses his triumphs and failures on the county board, not to mention the weight he gained in all those evening meetings.
Why did you originally run for the board?
For me it was wanting to get involved after Newt Gingrich took over Congress. I'd seen his 'Contract with America.' One thing led to finding out the county board seat was open.
What are your proudest achievements?
The Interoperable radio agreement was rather a tricky agreement, because we had to get the cities, villages and towns to sign on to it. Second was the Clear Lakes Initiative, a $30 million project that will remove phosphorus from the lakes.
And the equal benefits ordinance. We're the only municipality in the state [Madison later passed similar legislation] that says if you want to do business with the county, you have to provide domestic partner benefits. The HMOs are now offering [the benefit] in the standard boilerplate to organizations that would not have it otherwise.
Do you have any regrets?
There's a bunch. One regret is, before [Gov. Scott] Walker came into power, there were opportunities for us to squirrel away a little more money.... We didn't do that. That was something we should have done and would have put us in a better position.
One big regret I have is I spent all my time creating a regional transit authority and we adopted it. [But when Republicans later took control of the Legislature, they repealed the RTA]. That was extraordinarily frustrating. One of the things we most desperately need is a regional transit approach.
Are you worried about going through withdrawal, not being on the county board anymore?
It'll be hard. The way you deal with that is you throw yourself into your new job. I like to be intellectually challenged. That will be a fun challenge for me.
How has the board changed over the years?
One thing that's changed in my time is the meetings are shorter. They're much less contentious, and maybe even a little oversanitized. I like that we rely on committees to do our work. But we've become invisible because we're not interesting to cover. There are no fights like there are on the Common Council.
How did being on the board change you?
I definitely gained some weight, with all those meetings at night. I was a serious athlete when I graduated from UW. But I've been really fortunate to be on the county board. We only get paid $7,000 or $8,000 a year, but you're paid to get an education. You learn about everything. And you get to meet all these people who work so hard.