Despite a legal filing that says Sauk County wants to appeal a judge’s decision in a records lawsuit, government leaders aren’t yet sure they want to go that route.
The Sauk County Board’s five-person executive and legislative committee took the unusual step Tuesday of declining an opportunity to discuss the matter behind closed doors.
The panel voted 3-2 against going into closed session to strategize with legal counsel about a lawsuit the Baraboo News Republic filed against the county more than a year ago.
The newspaper sought records involving the 2016 death of a town of Bear Creek man on property the county deemed hazardous, as well as documents relating to controversies over the hiring and firing of the county’s chief administrator.
On Dec. 14, Green Lake County Circuit Court Judge Mark Slate sided with the newspaper on most matters, ordering the county to turn over documents that it previously withheld or redacted.
He denied the newspaper access to certain documents deemed treatment records and called for further proceedings on several unresolved matters.
Sauk County Corporation Counsel Daniel Olson told committee members Tuesday that any closed-door strategy discussion would be “pretty hypothetical” without first hearing from the newspaper’s legal team. He said going into closed session to discuss the matter was lawful, but not required.
The committee instead decided to postpone its discussion until Friday, after representatives for the county and newspaper have had a chance to begin talks of a potential settlement. Those negotiations are slated to begin Wednesday afternoon.
Executive and legislative committee member Tom Kriegl of Baraboo expressed frustration with how the case has been handled. He said the board learned of the judge’s opinion from a newspaper article rather than the county’s professional staff.
Kriegl also raised questions about a legal filing in which the county stated its intention to appeal the decision. The executive and legislative committee, which typically provides input on such matters, was not consulted.
On Dec. 28, two weeks after the circuit court judge’s ruling in the case, an attorney hired by the county’s insurance company filed a petition with Wisconsin’s 4th District Court of Appeals.
In the legal filing, the county takes issue with the judge’s decision and requests permission to move forward with an appeal before the circuit court case is fully resolved. The filing also asks the Court of Appeals to temporarily halt the circuit court proceedings.
The Court of Appeals already has denied the latter request.
Sauk County Board Chairman Peter Vedro of Baraboo said in a phone interview after Tuesday’s meeting that outside counsel informed him during a Dec. 21 phone conference that Dec. 28 was the deadline to file the petition.
He said because of the holidays, it was impossible to run the decision through the usual channels. So he and county staff authorized the insurance company attorney to submit the legal filing as a placeholder.
He said the county has not yet determined whether it truly intends to move forward with an appeal.
“Our intent was not to file an appeal, if you will, based on the facts,” Vedro said, “but to have an opportunity to meet with the (newspaper) and discuss.”
Vedro said regardless of the case's outcome, he intends to begin discussions on how to avoid conflicts over records in the future. He noted that the legal dispute began in 2017, before a newly elected county board chose fresh leadership.