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Legality of Sauk County policy approval in question

Under an agenda item listed as "Policies/Ordinance Updates," a Sauk County discussed and approved new employee complaint and fraud reporting procedures.

Without specific notice to the public, a committee last week approved a new policy that establishes how Sauk County government employees should address complaints and report fraud.

The Sauk County Board’s Personnel Committee voted 3-0, with two members absent, to approve the policy during a Dec. 1 meeting. It happened during a portion of the meeting set aside for “Department Updates.”

County leaders say they believe that action was properly noticed under the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law. An attorney and open government advocate disagrees.

The updates appear monthly at the end of each personnel committee meeting agenda, after more specific discussion or action items.

They typically include information from Personnel Director Michelle Posewitz, such as her monthly report, a recruitment update and a policy or ordinance update, during which the committee may discuss issues on the horizon.

Posewitz — who prepared the Dec. 1 meeting agenda — said she believes the item “Policies/Ordinance Update” was an adequate description of what was going to occur at the meeting.

She has included policy updates in the “Department Updates” section of previous agendas as well, but no action has been taken in those instances.

The newly approved policy establishes a series of steps for resolving employee complaints. It also says the county will contract with an outside firm to accept anonymous reports of fraud and ethical issues.

“Sauk County believes in as much openness as possible,” Posewitz wrote in an email. “While I believe the agenda item was appropriate, we will try to be more specific in the future.”

It’s not clear what the discussion at the meeting entailed. The county has a system for recording meetings, but the personnel committee is one of several bodies that does not use the system.

A Madison attorney with expertise in open government law said she does not believe the agenda item met legal requirements.

“Case law is pretty clear that when you have a new item that the public wouldn’t likely anticipate, then the notice should be especially specific to signal to the public that there is something that may be of interest that will be discussed or voted on,” said attorney Christa Westerberg, co-vice president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

Westerberg represented the Baraboo News Republic in a 2011 records lawsuit against the county.

A Wisconsin Open Meetings Law compliance guide produced by the Wisconsin Department of Justice sets forth guidelines for agenda items on which a committee may take action.

The guide says “information in the notice must be sufficient to alert the public to the importance of the meeting, so that they can make an informed decision whether to attend.”

Supervisor David Moore of Wisconsin Dells, a member of the personnel committee, said he thinks the Dec. 1 agenda was sufficient. And if members of the public want to know what’s happening in government, he said, they need to get involved.

“It’s one thing to sit back and scream about our right to know,” Moore said. “It’s another thing to exercise our responsibility to find out.”

Moore said if agenda items are too specific, that can limit discussion, and broad discussions lead to better ideas.

“I would disagree with that,” Westerberg said. “The idea of the Open Meetings Law is you don’t post a notice that is so broad that it’s possible for anything to be discussed.”

Posewitz said the county has not yet contracted with an outside firm to handle anonymous fraud reports. Administrative Coordinator Alene Kleczek Bolin is working on those specifics, she said.

Follow Tim Damos on Twitter @timdamos

Reporter for the Baraboo News Republic.