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County Board rejects ethics code

County Board rejects ethics code

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Sauk County Board members overwhelmingly rejected proposed additions to a code of ethics Tuesday night, a document spawned by controversy over a supervisor's religious slur five months ago.

While 27 of the board's 31 supervisors voted against the amendments, they did so for different reasons.

Some said the code's six proposed "core values" were an inadequate response to a comment that was offensive to Jewish people. Others characterized the additions as an overreaction to an offhanded remark that was not intended to be offensive.

"I believe that a remark inadvertently made was blown way out of proportion and commented on by the whole nation," said Supervisor Andrea Lombard of Baraboo, adding that fellow Supervisor Virgil Hartje did not act maliciously when he used a word offensive to Jewish people.

Hartje, of La Valle, said during a March meeting that the county had "jewed down" a contractor to get a better price. He initially refused to apologize, saying the word is appropriate because it is in the dictionary and is considered a "business term."

Leaders within the Jewish community criticized Hartje for not apologizing, saying the comment evokes a stereotype of Jews as money-grubbing. They also criticized the board's leadership for not demanding an apology or issuing a formal rebuke of the comment.

Hartje issued a written apology in May. He said he didn't want to apologize, but did so to protect the county's image.

Members of the board's Executive and Legislative Committee said that although they didn't agree with Hartje's language, it was not the biggest obstacle to a properly functioning board. The disrespectful behavior of other supervisors is a more serious problem, they said.

The committee sought to resolve the issue by drafting an addition to the county's code of ethics that would cover the behavior of all supervisors.

But some said Tuesday night the proposal was too little, too late.

"There was no malice, I agree," Supervisor Judith Stoeckmann of Reedsburg said about Hartje's comment. But she said the board's leadership could have quickly resolved the issue by issuing a formal statement that "we as a group do not believe those words are appropriate and that we recognize how much they hurt people."

She said the proposal considered by the board Tuesday night was an inadequate response.

The proposal listed and defined six "core values" - service, integrity, quality, diversity, shared purpose and stewardship of resources - that should guide supervisors and county employees. Violations of the values would not have been subject to penalty, according to the resolution.

Supervisor Henry Netzinger said the updated code of ethics did not address his concerns about a lack of respect among supervisors.

"I don't know how we can get people to respect each other," Netzinger said. "Proverbial slips are going to happen."

Hartje said Tuesday night he has only received criticism about the remark from one supervisor. He suggested the county adopt a more stringent code of ethics that would allow board members to remove one another from office.

Hartje alluded to Supervisor Tom Kriegl of Baraboo, who is known for his aggressive behavior and was once formally censured by the board.

"I think it's time you can simplify (the code of ethics) and if you don't like Mr. (Tom) Kriegl and the way he treats somebody, bring it to the County Board and if we agree, he's off the board," Hartje said.

Todd Liebman, the county's attorney, said Hartje's suggestion was not legally permissible.

Supervisor Rob Sinklair of Prairie du Sac responded to Hartje's assertion that most board members were not offended by the comment by asking supervisors who thought the comment was appropriate to raise their hands. About six supervisors did.

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