Sauk County Board leaders want more time to contemplate imposing new limitations on public comment at government meetings.
Following a 25-minute discussion Tuesday about a proposed change to board rules, the five-person Executive and Legislative Committee decided to postpone action to a future meeting.
Sauk County Corporation Counsel Daniel Olson will draft a menu of potential rule changes for the panel to consider based on feedback from supervisors at Tuesday’s meeting.
Current rules allow members of the public to speak during board and committee meetings about anything they want for a period of up to three minutes. A proposal that went before the committee Tuesday would have limited the content of comments to meeting agenda items or matters under the county’s control.
Discussions about potential changes began in September when committee member Wally Czuprynko of Lake Delton asked the panel to consider adopting a more formal set of public comment rules.
He said members of the public complained to him that comment signup slips were taken out of order and speakers were cut off during an August meeting. Czuprynko and others also have expressed concern about personal attacks on supervisors during public comment.
The committee last month asked Olson to draft a proposed rule change based on his research of best practices and guidelines used by other counties.
During Tuesday’s discussion, supervisors disagreed about the broadness of topics that members of the public should be permitted to address when speaking at meetings.
Supervisor Bryant Hazard of Baraboo said allowing speakers to address any matter under the county’s control was overly expansive, and that members of the public should have to stick to agenda items.
“If someone wants to address the board about something that’s not on the agenda, they should use some other venue,” Hazard said. “They should send us a letter, send us an email, write a letter to the paper. I don’t think at the board meeting we should be — pardon the word — burdened with things that have nothing to do with what’s going on that night.”
Committee members Tom Kriegl of Baraboo and Bill Hambrecht of Prairie du Sac disagreed, saying supervisors pay less attention to letters and emails than they do to public comments at meetings. They suggested speakers be given wider latitude to discuss any county matter.
The panel also discussed whether rules should mandate a public comment period at all committees meetings. Sauk County Administrative Coordinator Alene Kleczek Bolin said it may not be wise to lock the county into that requirement.
“There may be times when a committee may just be meeting briefly and not want a public comment period,” she said, adding that committees already do allow for public comment.
The board has more than a dozen standing committees, and most of their meetings are not attended by anyone from the public. In those instances, panels simply open the floor for public comments, and then move on to the next agenda item when no one steps forward to speak.
State law does not require county boards to allow public comment at meetings, but most do.
Committee member Bill Wenzel of Prairie du Sac said he agreed with an existing passage in board rules that says “personalities shall be avoided and propriety observed.” But he said he doesn’t like the idea of being too restrictive when it comes to public comments.
“I think the danger here is losing sight of the fact that the county isn’t run for the employees. It’s not run for the supervisors. It’s run for the people,” Wenzel said. “If we’re screwing up as a body — or somebody thinks we’re screwing up as a body — I think they should be free to express that opinion.”
Other committee members said criticizing the board or disagreeing with individual supervisors is fine, but personal attacks and name-calling are out of bounds.
Olson said limiting the content of comments to agenda items and matters under the board’s authority would prevent personal attacks by default. “The board has no authority to change the character of any of its members,” he said.