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As Kathleen Falk marks 10 years at the helm of Dane County this week, supporters and critics alike describe the third-term county executive as having had a generally positive impact.

"She's proven herself to be quite competent and a good steward, particularly in the area of natural resources," said one of her predecessors, Jonathan Barry, who endorsed Falk's opponent in her first run for county executive.

"The general course of what she's done exhibits a real concern about the future," agreed another former county executive, Rick Phelps, who endorsed Falk in that race to fill his shoes.

Phelps, a senior vice president for M&I Bank, said Falk has sustained her success through disciplined fiscal management and a good relationship with the business community, which likes her focus on quality-of-life issues because it can lure companies and workers.

Even so, some observers, such as County Board member Dennis O'Loughlin of DeForest, wonder if Falk's budgets have worn the county's infrastructure thin in areas such as building maintenance, staffing needs and technology upgrades.

"I think she's trying to manage it properly, but there's so much pressure from the number of people coming into Dane County that it's a tough balancing act," O'Loughlin said.

\ Series of firsts

Falk, 55, has led a career dotted with firsts: first woman to serve as Dane County exec, first to run unopposed, first to win a third term.

"It was groundbreaking to see somebody put that much time and energy into a position that not many women thought they had the time and energy for," said Susan Crowley, who was the county's director of human services from 1997 to 2000. "She'll continue to be a pacesetter for many women who are looking for opportunities to advance."

Falk, a Milwaukee native, attended Stanford University and received her law degree in 1976 from UW-Madison. She served as an assistant attorney general, including 12 years as public intervenor, in which she advocated for the public on environmental issues. She ran for county executive when Phelps said he would not seek re-election in 1997.

In 2002, Falk became the first woman to run for a major party's gubernatorial nomination. She lost to Jim Doyle in the Democratic primary.

Last year, she lost a bitter attorney general race to Republican J.B. Van Hollen after defeating incumbent Peg Lautenschlager in the primary. Trailing by fewer than 10,000 votes on election night, Falk didn't concede until two weeks after the election.

Falk maintains she has no plans to run again for statewide office, but she won't make any predictions about the future. The same goes for a fourth term as county executive. Her term expires in 2009.

She still describes her job with enthusiasm.

"The issues that inspired me to run 10 years ago, I'm even more passionate about today," Falk said.

Those issues have manifested in what she considers her major achievements: maintaining the county's quality of life, preserving human services despite cutbacks in state and federal aid, and increasing treatment programs for jail inmates.

\ Environmental legacy

When Falk became executive, she was known primarily for her environmental advocacy, a passion many observers agree will be at the core of her legacy.

In 1998, Falk introduced Design Dane, the first of three land-use initiatives, and the following April brought together real-estate agents, developers and environmentalists to help pass a land conservation advisory referendum. Three out of four voters agreed the county should spend $30 million over 10 years to acquire more parks and open space.

In her 2007 budget, Falk established the Land and Water Legacy Fund, which is to be used to help keep the county's waterways clean. She successfully pushed for a ban on phosphates in fertilizer, and most recently, a ban on coal tar in surface sealants.

Falk won her first election with about 52 percent of the vote. Though she won a decisive victory in Madison, she lost in almost all of the wards outside the city.

From the outset, however, "she worked really hard to be the county executive for the entire county," said Topf Wells, Falk's chief of staff.

By the end of her first term, Falk had achieved a number of collaborative successes.

The expansion of Highway 12 to a four-lane highway between Middleton and Sauk City had the makings of a political showdown between environmentalists led by Falk and development interests led by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.

But Falk concluded litigation would not be the best solution. So she made sure community voices were at the negotiating table and the state pledged $16 million to buy easements that would protect the Baraboo Hills in Sauk County from development and preserve farmland along the highway in both Sauk and Dane counties.

Gary Wolter, CEO of Madison Gas & Electric Co., said a more recent example was Falk's involvement in bringing water resource experts together to resolve a dispute over the water from Lake Mendota needed for a new co-generation power plant on the UW-Madison campus. The experts devised a plan to replenish lake water used by the plant.

"The respect the community had for Kathleen went a long way to getting people to work together," Wolter said.

\ Budget battles

Falk's tenure also has been marked by political battles with other county officials around budget time, as she stuck to her policy of only increasing the county tax levy by growth plus inflation.

Chief Judge Michael Nowakowski, who said he has "locked horns" with Falk over the years, credited Falk for finally green-lighting a new Dane County courthouse, which he had sought since 1990. It opened last year. The final agreement, however, included a number of conditions limiting the project budget and size of the building, Nowakowski said.

"There's no question that it was a long battle to finally convince her to agree to build a new courthouse," Nowakowski said.

Falk has encouraged alternatives to incarceration programs, with an emphasis on treating inmates for alcohol and drug addiction, rather than building more jail cells.

Former Sheriff Gary Hamblin, who often butted heads with Falk over the budget, criticized her leadership on the issue of jail crowding. A recent effort to find a site for a new jail has stalled as officials examine alternatives to building more cells.

"If there had been effective long-term planning," Hamblin said, "there would have been a better effort with linking a new courthouse with an expanded Public Safety Building" next door.

County Board Chairman Scott McDonell, who joined the board a year before Falk took office, said he has appreciated Falk's fiscal discipline in the face of declining state and federal revenue. He acknowledged that sometimes capital projects get put off, but said it has been done to maintain human services.

"From the public's point of view, they haven't seen an erosion in services they rely on," McDonell said.

Former executive Barry said any decline in human services during the last decade may be seen as one of Falk's weaknesses. But, he added, "I can't fault her on it because the funding from the states and the federal government was reduced."

Late in her second term, Falk asked her staff to research a different approach to help young families succeed. The result was the $396,000-a-year Early Childhood Initiative program on Allied Drive. The program has helped 99 families with parenting skills, housing, health care and jobs.

Doyle included $1 million in his recently proposed state budget to expand the program to other impoverished areas of Dane County.

"I'm trying to change things," Falk said. "I'm trying to change the criminal justice system. I'm trying to move families out of poverty. ... I'm trying to change land-use decisions that have been made the same ways for 100 years and need to change so we don't lose our county."

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