What Is A Town?

Towns are created by the Wisconsin Constitution to provide basic municipal government services, such as elections, property tax administration (towns collect taxes for counties, schools and other governments, as well as for their own budgets), road construction and maintenance, recycling, emergency medical services and fire protection. Some towns also offer law enforcement, solid waste collection, zoning and other services. The town form of government was brought into Wisconsin from New England in territorial days. Thus, Wisconsin towns have deep and uniquely American roots.


Legal Framework of Towns: Towns are "general purpose" local governments, which means that they provide basic services used daily by all residents (Wisconsin also has "special purpose" governments that offer more targeted services, such as school districts). The major duties and powers of all towns are spelled out in Article IV, Section 23 of the Wisconsin Constitution, Ch. 60 of the Wisconsin Statutes (which pertains specifically to town governments) and Ch. 66 of the Wisconsin Statutes (which applies to towns, villages and cities).

Two Tiers: Wisconsin actually has two tiers of general-purpose local governments: 72 counties and 1,550 municipalities. This sometimes causes confusion because residents may not always know which level is responsible for a given service. Further opportunities for confusion are spawned by the fact that Wisconsin has three distinct types of municipalities: towns, villages and cities. Counties cover the entire area of the state and are primarily responsible for providing human services. However, there is also some overlap with municipalities. For example, both counties and municipalities maintain roads.

Municipalities: In some respects, towns operate like cities and villages, but in other ways they are quite different. They are similar in the sense that they provide many of the same services as cities and villages, but they are organized and governed in a different manner. The major distinguishing feature of towns is the fact that they continue to operate as a "direct democracy." State law requires towns to hold "town meetings" where all qualified electors who are age 18 or older and have lived in the town for at least ten days can discuss and vote on town matters, including the town's property tax levy. This means that the electors of the town have more direct control over their most local government issues than their cousins living in cities and villages (where major decisions are made by elected representatives). Towns also tend to dove-tail their services with counties to a greater extent than cities and villages.

Town Government: The day-to-day administrative issues of each town are handled by an elected town board, consisting of three or five members. Town boards are elected for two-year terms in spring elections of odd-numbered years. Towns are also served by a clerk and treasurer and can have an appointed town administrator.

More About Towns: Wisconsin has 1,266 towns, which govern all parts of the state that are not included within the corporate boundaries of cities and villages. The term’s "town" and "township" are sometimes used interchangeably. But in Wisconsin, the words are not identical. The word "town" denotes a unit of government while "township" is a surveyor's term describing the basic grid framework for legal descriptions of all land in the state (including land in cities and villages). Originally, most towns (and townships) were six mile by six mile squares (36 square miles), but natural and man-made boundaries (rivers and county lines, for example) caused some variation. Annexation of town lands into cities and villages have eroded some towns to a fraction of their original size. The Town of Germantown (Washington County) is the smallest town in the state at 1.7 square miles.[i]


When the Wisconsin Territory began to function on July 3, 1836 there were four counties within the present boundaries of Wisconsin, i.e., Brown, Crawford, Iowa and Milwaukee. The total white population of the four Wisconsin counties according to the territorial census of 1836 was 11,683. Once Wisconsin became a territory in 1836 fifteen additional counties were created; those in or near the Fox Valley included the counties of Calumet, Manitowoc, Sheboygan, Fond du Lac, Marquette and Portage.


At the 1836 session of the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature, Act Number 16 provided in Section One that:


Each county within its territory…..is one township, and there shall be elected at the annual town meeting in each county three supervisors who shall perform, in addition to the duties assigned them as a county board, the duties assigned them as a township board.


Three additional counties were “set off” or the boundaries defined by the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature in 1840, i.e., St. Croix, Sauk and Winnebago. Three landowners in Winnebago County were appointed commissioners to locate the county seat, i.e., Nathaniel Perry, Robert Grignon and Morgan L. Martin, but it wasn’t until 1842 that the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature provided for the legal organization of the governments of Winnebago County and the Town of Butte des Morts.


The April election of 1842 was held at the home of Webster Stanley in the Village of Oshkosh as had been done in previous years. A week before the April election in 1843 the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature changed the name of the Town of Butte des Morts in Winnebago County to the Town of Winnebago. In accordance With The Territorial Legislatures act providing for only one township per county until the Legislature decided otherwise, the voters assembled at Stanley’s tavern and elected three men to be at one and the same time the first supervisors of the Town of Winnebago and of Winnebago County. These first three supervisors were William C. Isbell, Chester Ford and Louis B. Porlier.


The first meetings of the Winnebago County Board of Supervisors were held on May 1 and May 6, 1843 at the house of Webster Stanley in Oshkosh and elected William C. Isbell the first chairman of the Winnebago County Board and of the Town of Winnebago Board. The board appointed George F. Wright, the first county clerk, and William W. Wright, the first county treasurer.


While the first meetings of the board of supervisors were held in May 1843, the first annual meeting of the board was held September 14, 1843 at which a budget of $125 was adopted. Later the same month, the first regular election for county officers retained George F. Wright as county clerk, W.W. Wright as treasurer and elected W.C. Isbell the first register of deeds and Samuel L. Brooks the first coroner.


A dramatic increase in Winnebago’s population beginning in the summer of 1846 seems to have persuaded the Territorial Legislature on February 11, 1847 to divide the Town of Winnebago into five towns, i.e., Brighton, Butt des Morts, Neenah, Rushford and Winnebago. The towns of Winneconne (spelled Winneconnah in 1848) and Utica were set off on March 11, 1848 and ordered organized. Since town chairman in the 1840’s were automatically county supervisors, the above increase in the number of Winnebago County’s towns also increased the size of the county board after the election of 1848 to seven members.


In the month of March, 1849 four different bills passed the Wisconsin State Legislature and received the governor’s signature, which changed town boundaries or town names in Winnebago County. Chapter 79 signed into law March 8, 1848 temporarily extended the county boundaries by adding “Indian Land” acquired from the Menominee Indians on October 18, 1848. By March 28, 1856 the land involved had either been set off into Outagamie County or been attached to Shawano and Oconto Counties. These changes again reduced Winnebago County to its present geographical limits.


The Wisconsin Legislature in 1848 set off and organized the Town of Vinland, and changed the name of the Town of Butte des Morts to the Town of Bloomingdale. A third bill approved on March 21, 1849 set off and organized the Town of Clayton. The last act was Chapter 136 approved March 22, 1849 which changed the boundaries of the towns of Winnebago and Brighton.


Matters of primarily local concern, i.e., the need to set off, organize and change the name of local towns, had consumed so much of the Wisconsin Legislature’s time that they delegated this important power to the county boards in an act approved on August 28, 1848. Thus the Winnebago County Board of Supervisors received a petition at its annual meeting in November, 1849 asking for the creation of a Town of Algoma. This petition was laid over until the next meeting of the board, but at the same meeting the Town of Nepeuskun was set off from Rushford and the new town ordered organized.[ii]



Since 1847 the Town of Rushford has been serving its taxpayers. As a proactive unit of government the town has maintained compliance with legislative mandates throughout its history. On October 27, 1999, the Governor signed into law Wisconsin’s most sweeping change in decades affecting local land use and planning decision-making. The program known as “Smart Growth” did a number of things:


·        It allocated up to $2.5 million annually to help local units of government pay for the costs of preparing a comprehensive plan.

·        Text Box: Nine Elements
Of a Comprehensive Plan

•	Issues and Opportunities
•	Agricultural, Natural and Cultural Resources
•	Economic Development
•	Housing
•	Utilities and Community Facilities
•	Transportation
•	Land Use
•	Intergovernmental Cooperation
•	Implementation
It defined nine key elements that must be contained in all comprehensive plans.

·        It required that all local government actions that affect land use policies and development reviews be consistent with the content of the communities comprehensive plan.

·        It mandated the adoption of a traditional neighborhood development and a conservation subdivision ordinance for communities that are 12,500 in population or greater.

·        It created new procedures for adopting and updating comprehensive plans.

·        It mandated the size and make-up of plan commissions.

·        It created the Smart Growth Dividend Aid program.


With Wisconsin’s Smart Growth laws, the importance of having a comprehensive plan is significant. In fact, after 2009 if a local government wants to have a say in how and where development occurs within its boundaries, they must have and adopted comprehensive plan that is compliant with the statutes.


In compliance with Wisconsin’s Smart Growth laws, the Town of Rushford undertook the creation of this Comprehensive Plan. Further evidence of its authority to do so concludes this introduction to the Town of Rushford’s Comprehensive Plan.

Establishment of Legal Planning Authority


The State of Wisconsin Municipal Code (State Statutes) is the legal document that originally established and identified township authority along with organizational structure and legal status.  Over recent years, the Town of Rushford has acted to further establish and protect their identity by establishing a Zoning Ordinance, and acquiring the right to exercise Village Powers. 


Text Box: Important Moments in Wisconsin Planning Legislation

1909 - Wisconsin becomes the first state to grant a clear right for municipalities to engage in planning.

1941 – Legislature enacts enabling statute to allow preparation of “master” plans.

1999 – Wisconsin’s Smart Growth Initiative enacted.
On January 31 and February 5, 1980, the Town of Rushford conducted public hearings for the consideration of adoption of a zoning ordinance— allowed under Wisconsin State Statutes Chapter 60.61.  Also at this time, the Town of Rushford formed a Zoning Committee/Plan Commission to oversee governance of the zoning ordinance. 


On April 5, 1980, the Town of Rushford held a public hearing authorizing by resolution, the right to exercise Village Powers—allowed under Wisconsin State Statutes Chapter 60.10 (2) (c). 


On October 3, 1989, the Rushford Zoning Ordinance went into effect— allowed under Wisconsin State Statutes Chapter 61.35.  Building permit approval was included as part of the zoning ordinance.


Aside from the land use related laws above, it will be important for the Town of Rushford to consider county and state laws.  Such laws include but are not limited to, floodplain zoning, wetland and shoreland zoning, and sanitary regulations.


[i] Wisconsin Towns Association – July, 2001 – What is a Town, Web Page.

[ii] A History of Winnebago County Government. Copywright – Dr. Martin Guberg – 1998, Oshkosh Wisconsin.