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Experts find Sauk County Board debate rule confusing

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Disagreement over a Sauk County Board rule that involves closing off debate is mainly due to its ambiguous phrasing, according to two outside experts.

Although the two specialists disagree about how the rule has been interpreted by the board’s chairman and the county’s attorney, both said the problem seems to stem from the rule’s wording.

“It might be worth clearing up the language of the board rules, which are currently confusing,” said Jim Slaughter, a North Carolina-based attorney and past President of the American College of Parliamentary Lawyers.

The rule in question says a motion to close debate and vote on a matter “shall not be in order” until every board member who wishes to speak has had that opportunity.

Budget discussion

Disagreement over the rule came up during the board’s annual budget meeting in November. After an hour and 40 minutes of debate on the county’s $84 million spending plan, one supervisor made a motion to end discussion and vote.

Chairman Marty Krueger asked whether supervisors who had not yet chimed in still wanted to speak. There were several.

After consulting with Sauk County Corporation Counsel Todd Liebman, Krueger decided not to rule the motion out of order.

Instead, he told supervisors he would grant those who wished to speak a first time their allotted three minutes. But he restricted them from offering further budget amendments until the motion to end debate could be considered.

Supervisor Tom Kriegl of Baraboo objected, saying Krueger should have immediately ruled the motion out of order once he saw there were supervisors who still wished speak a first time.

A motion to appeal Krueger’s ruling failed, and supervisors were asked to vote on whether to close the budget debate. The board ultimately decided not to do that, and the discussion continued.

Slaughter’s interpretation

Procedurally, Slaughter said, Krueger handled the matter appropriately by consulting with the board’s attorney and allowing an appeal. However, he said, he agrees with Kriegl that the motion to end discussion should not have been entertained.

One way to handle the rule, Slaughter said, is that if someone moves to close debate, the chair could ask, “’Is there anyone who wishes to speak a first time?’ If hands go up, the chair should rule the motion out of order.”

Slaughter is an expert on Roberts Rules of Order, a guidebook to meeting procedures. Under those rules, he said, motions to close debate are not debatable, require a two-thirds vote to pass, and can be made regardless of whether there are members who have not spoken. But he said the board’s adopted rules supersede the procedural guide.

“Any state statute, city ordinance, or board-adopted rule would override Robert’s Rules,” Slaughter said, and he was unsure whether any higher authority addresses the matter.

A different view

Another expert says he interprets the rule differently, but agrees that cleaning up the language might resolve the controversy.

“Sometimes semantics get in the way,” said Wisconsin Counties Association Chief of Staff J. Michael Blaska, who writes a monthly guide to meeting procedures in Wisconsin Counties magazine.

Blaska agrees with Krueger and Liebman that a motion to close debate should be entertained even if supervisors who still wish to speak have not yet had that opportunity. They should be permitted to speak once, Blaska said, and then the board should vote on the motion.

During the November meeting, Liebman said it’s not practical to permit amendments after someone has made a motion to end discussion. Debate on an amendment would start a new round of comments, which could allow discussion to continue indefinitely.

Blaska said he agrees with that too. He also said the intention of the rule when it was created is a factor.

Suggested revisions

If the board wants to reinforce Krueger and Liebman’s interpretation, Blaska said, it could rewrite the rule to say that a motion to close debate “is in order,” but not until after every board member who wishes to speak has had that opportunity.

Slaughter had a different suggestion. “For instance, the rule could state that if a motion to close debate is adopted, members who have not spoken to the issue would be permitted to speak once,” he said. “That would at least let you know how to handle the motion.”

Debate over the rule came up again during a December board meeting when Kriegl attempted to amend minutes from the November meeting to read that Krueger and Liebman had violated the rules. The board rejected the changes.

Krueger, past President of the Wisconsin Counties Association, promised to invite Blaska to a future meeting to offer guidance. He told a committee Jan. 3 that Blaska had declined his invitation.

Follow Tim Damos on Twitter @timdamos

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Baraboo News Republic reporter

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