Sauk County Board members who privately discussed electing a new chair in emails may have violated Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law, officials say.
Documents show several supervisors continued the conversation even after attorneys for the county repeatedly warned them it might be illegal.
“I don’t know all the number of emails that were sent,” said Daniel Olson, the county’s chief legal counsel, who cautioned supervisors after learning of the discussion. “So I’m not in a position to make a determination as to whether or not there might have been a violation.”
Supervisor Wally Czuprynko of Lake Delton started the email chain Tuesday night after learning that his political foe, Board Chairman Peter Vedro of Baraboo, had proposed rescinding an advisory referendum on the right to bear arms. Czuprynko was a sponsor of that proposal.
Czuprynko sent an email to 24 of the board’s 31 members in which he accused Vedro of using “thug-like Stalinist tactics” to advance a “Progressive/Socialist Agenda.” He called on supervisors to sign a document requesting a new election for board chair.
Attorneys caution supervisors
On Wednesday morning, after several supervisors replied to the email thread, Olson got wind of the situation. The attorney reminded supervisors that email discussions may violate the state’s Open Meetings Law, which requires government bodies to conduct their business in public.
Minutes later, Czuprynko replied to Olson and the rest of the board: “Thanks for your opinion, Daniel. The full County Board is dealing with this matter.”
Further discussion prompted a warning from Administrative Coordinator Alene Kleczek Bolin, the county’s top official who also is an attorney. She deemed the email chain “an illegal meeting” and asked supervisors to stop replying.
Olson then chimed in with a second, more serious warning in which he notified the board that an intentional violation of the Open Meetings Law is criminal, not civil, conduct.
Discussion continues, despite warnings
County officials have since posted the initial exchanges — the last of which took place Wednesday afternoon — online for the public to see.
However, the Baraboo News Republic has obtained documents showing that Czuprynko and another supervisor — Tim McCumber of Merrimac — sent additional emails long after they received the warnings.
“If it comes to it, I have no interest in serving as County Board Chairman during this term,” Czuprynko wrote to the board more than 10 hours after his back-and-forth with the county attorney. “Do not respond to this email so that we do not violate open meeting laws.”
A short time later, McCumber followed up on Czuprynko’s comment with another email to the board.
“If we conduct a vote on Tuesday night, I also have no intention of running for chair,” McCumber wrote. “I am looking forward to the debate.”
When asked about the discussion in a phone interview Saturday, McCumber initially denied sending any emails after he received the attorneys’ warnings.
“I don’t believe that I did,” he said.
When confronted with the text of the email he sent Wednesday night, McCumber then recalled the message. However, he said it was not a violation because he sent it to only a few supervisors, not the entire board.
“We can, as board members, talk to each other,” McCumber said. “But the trick to not having an illegal meeting is making sure you don’t have a quorum.”
When confronted with the fact that his Wednesday night email was addressed to the “County Board,” not individual supervisors, McCumber recanted again.
He then conceded that the email was indeed addressed to the full board, but that it was not a violation because it was a new message, not a reply to the existing thread.
“I view that as new discussion,” McCumber said, adding that he was only trying to quell rumors that he was supporting Vedro’s ouster in order to become chairman himself.
An open government advocate says the board’s electronic discussion should have taken place in public, so that people who pay the county board could see and hear it.
Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders said Olson’s warning about deliberate criminal violations should have put an end to the thread.
“On reviewing this email chain, I think it makes perfect sense that some members of the Sauk County Board would prefer to conduct the public’s business amongst themselves and not in the open, because of how bad their plotting makes them look,” Lueders said.