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Sauk County citizens oppose new limits on public comments

Martha Barrett of Baraboo speaks in opposition to a proposed Sauk County Board rule that would have shortened the time allotted to public speakers from 3 minutes to 90 seconds.

Residents packed a Baraboo meeting room Tuesday night to speak out against new restrictions on public comment at Sauk County government meetings.

“What’s the agenda that is motivating this?” Sandra Von Eschen of Reedsburg asked about a proposed meeting rule that would have shortened the speaking time allotted to members of the public from three minutes to 90 seconds.

That was one of several new public comment restrictions proposed by Supervisor David Moore of Wisconsin Dells.

Aside from shortening speaking times, Moore’s changes would have prevented people from commenting at more than two consecutive monthly meetings. They also would have demanded that public speakers not name individual supervisors and refrain from advocating “violence or threats to break the law.”

More than 20 people filed into a room within the county’s West Square Building, where a committee was slated to consider numerous rule changes that supervisors have proposed. Seventeen people addressed the board’s Executive and Legislative Committee at the beginning of the meeting, asking that it reject new comment time limits.

Their concerns became obsolete about two hours into the meeting, just before the committee began to discuss Moore’s changes. He raised his hand, asked to address the committee, and said he would withdraw the proposal.

Moore said he mainly wanted the restrictions related to threats of violence, and referenced a meeting at which a public speaker “stated an intention or desire to go and burn down the Capitol.” Although the person likely was “speaking in hyperbole,” Moore said, such language was not appropriate.

Moore opted to drop the proposal, he said, because the county’s attorney determined that restricting the content of the public’s comments would be illegal.

He explained the rationale for shortened speaking times as follows: “The idea of a limit of time and so forth, I actually got that from the paper. Their letters to the editor, they limited the number of words and how often you can contribute.”

Moore’s was one of 27 rule changes that supervisors proposed, all of which were considered Tuesday night. The county’s 31 supervisory seats are up for election April 3, and rules for the next two-year term will be finalized after a new board is sworn in later that month.

Panel rejects drug testing

The committee opted not to recommend a proposed rule that would establish voluntary drug testing for board members.

The two supervisors who proposed it — Wally Czuprynko of Lake Delton and Henry Netzinger of Prairie du Sac — said the rule would allow board members to “show their transparency and respect for those they represent” and “set a good example for the people and employees of Sauk County.”

Supervisors raised concerns about the substances for which the tests would screen, and whether the rule was necessary.

Meeting lengths discussed

The committee also discussed several proposed changes intended to address the length of monthly board meetings.

Supervisors who wanted less discussion said monthly board meetings have become too long, and that several incumbents decided not to run for re-election because of the time commitment.

“We’re losing good people because our meetings run twice what most county board meetings run,” said committee member Joan Fordham of Baraboo, the board’s vice chair.

Some said discussions often devolve into straw polling, in which supervisors don’t offer new ideas or arguments, but simply agree or disagree with others who already have spoken.

Supervisor Tom Kriegl, who proposed changes to allow more discussion, said meetings would be shorter if the board’s monthly agendas were free of unnecessary items. He said the board spends too much time on reports and presentations before it gets to actual business.

“There’s just all kinds of stuff that happen in that first two hours before we make any significant decision,” Kriegl said.

The committee did not advise that the next board accept Kreigl’s changes, but did recommend one proposed by Supervisor Chuck Spencer of Baraboo. That change would clarify that when a motion to close debate is on the floor, amendments may not be proposed.

Follow Tim Damos on Twitter @timdamos

Baraboo News Republic reporter