A Columbia County supervisor said he perceived a chilly response Thursday on the part of the County Board’s Infrastructure Committee, to his suggestion that all 28 supervisors respond to questionnaires about the proposed county building projects.
Supervisor Kevin Kessler of the town of West Point said that what he has in mind isn’t a “straw poll” on how each supervisor would vote on the projects, which could cost as much as $55 million.
Rather, Kessler said, the Infrastructure Committee should find out, from each supervisor, exactly what information he or she wants before deciding in October whether to issue bonds — borrow money, and pay it back with a property tax increase — to pay for the proposed projects.
“I have no intent of behind-the-scenes information gathering,” Kessler said.
Infrastructure Committee Chairman Andy Ross said he would have to look at Kessler’s proposal before deciding what to do with it.
“This is the first I’ve seen of it,” Ross said. “I need to see what he hopes would be accomplished.”
County Board Chairman Vern Gove, who is a non-voting member of the Infrastructure Committee, said he thinks Corporation Counsel Joseph Ruf was quite clear with the County Board when, at the May 21 meeting, he discouraged an informal “straw poll” of the supervisors to gauge the level of support for the building project.
Plans call for the County Board to vote in October on an intent-to-bond resolution for the building project — probably for no more than $10 million, as interest costs would be significantly lower if the borrowing takes place in increments instead of all at once.
An intent-to-bond vote requires three-fourths approval, or at least 21 “yes” votes, no matter how many County Board members are at the meeting when the vote is taken. That means just eight “no” votes would bring the proposed building project to a halt.
Kessler said he thinks the committee should attempt to determine not how supervisors are inclined to vote on the matter, but rather how satisfied they are with the information that they have so far, and what more information they need.
“This is gauging the needs of other County Board members,” he said.
He presented a sample questionnaire, with a space on top for the responding supervisor’s district number, which asks:
• How involved the supervisor has been, so far, in the infrastructure discussions.
• Whether the supervisors feels he or she has had adequate involvement in the committee’s efforts to assess building needs, discern options and set priorities.
• Choosing one sentence that best describes the supervisor’s present feelings about the county’s infrastructure efforts.
• Ranking their highest priority concerns and informational needs.
While the responses would be directed to the Infrastructure Committee, Kessler said he would presume that each supervisor’s questionnaire response would be a public record — and the survey would not be anonymous.
But Robert Dreps, a Madison attorney who often fields freedom of information questions for the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, said the questionnaire itself poses intriguing questions.
On the one hand, Dreps said, it would not be proper for a county supervisor to line up support from other supervisors for a particular issue, before the matter comes to a formal vote. To do so could potentially create the appearance of a “walking quorum” — a discussion among county officials of an issue outside of a legally noticed open meeting.
On the other hand, discerning what questions a supervisor needs to have answered before making a decision might not fall into the scope of a “walking quorum.”
Dreps suggested directing any questions regarding how the state’s open meetings and open records laws would apply to this particular survey to the Wisconsin Attorney General’s Office.
Kessler said the concern from Associate Corporation Counsel Krista Miller, as he understands it, stems from Robert’s Rules of Order, which forbids taking an informal “straw poll” to test the water before conducting an official vote.
That concern doesn’t apply, at least not yet, because there is not currently an intent-to-bond resolution before the County Board, he said.
And, Kessler noted, there is nothing to prevent any County Board member from going directly to the Infrastructure Committee and outlining questions, concerns or needs for information regarding the proposed building project.