DARLINGTON – After a resolution created by an unknown source was distributed on Thursday, Nov. 7 created frenzy in the media across the country, the Land Conservation Committee met Tuesday morning and passed a similar but different resolution concerning the release of SWIGG water study results.
The first resolution distributed proposed a restriction on future test results to the board chairs or their designees, county conservationists and land conservation committee chairs of Grant, Lafayette and Iowa counties, where the study is being conducted. “They will review the results, talk about interpretations, and issue press releases when appropriate,” the resolution says. Other county supervisors or conservation committee members would receive results “when the public is informed,” “because of the past leaks.”
The review group would create “an appropriate statement” with the directive for the media to not “alter, edit, cut or adjust this press release in any way.” Reporters who attempted to “glean information and selectively report it in order to interpret the results for their own means” “will be prosecuted,” the resolution says.
The resolution also stated that “Any board member caught distorting information intentionally, or speaking to the press without the express authority to represent their Committee, full County Board or the Review Board, will be censured by their respective board and publicly admonished. Further action may be taken against said member as seen fit by their board through each county’s own ethics process.”
“The original resolution contained many things that were borderline illegal or unenforceable and I would not have voted for that,” Lafayette County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Sauer had mentioned at the meeting Tuesday morning.
The newest resolution state that when information is made public, all board members, committee members, county officials and county employees are to encourage members of the public, including press, to “review and disseminate complete and accurate information concerning the information and the water study”.
“In the event that a conference is held to distribute results,” the resolution continues, “invitations will be extended to local TV stations, radios and news outlets.” The conference will do a complete review of the test process. The press will be giving an official press release provided by the “Review Board”, which is consists of the Lafayette County Health Department, the County Conservationists and the Land Conservation Committee Chair.
It still stipulated that no board member, committee member, county official or county employee is authorized to make any public statement regarding the water study without the authorization of the Review Board. Anyone that violates that process may be subject to discipline. It was later commented that it would be ethics violation and taken up with the Ethics, Legislative, and Rules Committee Board.
After several members of the public commented on the previous resolution, since the newest resolution had yet to be distributed, Jack Sauer addressed some of the statements given.
He felt that the information discussed during the results of the water study in Lancaster when the results first came out should not have been hard to understand.
The SWIGG study began when homeowners in Grant, Lafayette and Iowa counties took 301 water samples last November and 539 samples in April, resulting in a total of 840 samples being randomly selected across the three-county region.
From those samples, 42 percent of the wells tested in November and 27 percent of the wells tested in April showed evidence of contaminated groundwater. In Lafayette County, 55 percent of the wells tested in November and 36 percent of the wells tested in April tested positive for high concentrates of nitrates, E. coli, and coliform bacteria.
Thirty-five wells were then randomly selected from those previously testing positive for bacteria exceeding the drinking water standard of 10 milligram per liter and were analyzed in April for “pathogens and non-pathogenic microorganisms capable of distinguishing human wastewater and livestock manure.”
Of those 35 wells tested, 32 showed evidence of both human and livestock fecal contamination. Seventeen of those 32 had bovine and human and five of the 17 had contamination from humans, cattle and hogs.
Confusion over the test results led to an inaccurate report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Aug. 1 that “32 of 35 wells — or 91 percent — contained fecal matter from humans or livestock,” when the correct percentage is 42 percent from the November testing and 27 percent from the April testing.
That in turn became an Associated Press story that was repeated by the Wisconsin State Journal and other newspapers nationwide, with the AP reporting that “The majority of private wells in southwestern Wisconsin are substantially polluted with fecal matter as concerns intensify over pollution of rural drinking water, according to a new study. Results from the independent study released August 1 indicated that 32 of 35 wells — or 91 percent — contained fecal matter from humans or livestock, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.”
“Somebody gave them the information that was not correct. Someone gave a black eye to Southwest Wisconsin. One of the county board chairs from Iowa County suspected a Lafayette County board member. This is a pretty harsh resolution but someone screamed like a stuck hog when it went out. Someone contacted the Associated Press, Chicago Tribune, news stations from Madison and Milwaukee.”
Sauer stated that the local news outlets, Republican Journal and the Telegraph Herald, had the correct information.
“It’s funny how we got all these calls from all these news stations that reported it wrong in the first place and the person that probably reported it wrong to them got a hold of them again. Didn’t you Kriss?”
The public present reacted with several loud, disapproving groans.
“I don’t know how to contact the Associated Press. I believe it is my responsibility to communicate with my constituents. I will not participate in a government that wants to operate in secret,” Lafayette County Board member Kriss Marion replied.
Marion posted the proposed ordinance on her Facebook page Friday, saying, “SWIGG study results are public information published by state and federal agencies. Public information isn't ‘confidential’ and can't be leaked. So I'm taken aback by the by the body of the resolution that apparently seeks to place a gag order on the discussion of publicly available scientific results.”
“I think that is our job to make our position as transparent as possible,” Marion continued. “The very fact that this resolution authored by whomever, came to me on a Thursday and didn’t come through this committee last week, tells me that this was intentional, and the idea was to make sure people were disenfranchised.”
Sauer went after Marion stating she has a hard time telling the truth.
“You say you care so much about Lafayette County that you put misinformation out to make your own campaign for a state senate look better that makes you look like a savior,” Sauer argued.
An argument broke out between Sauer and members of the public.
Sauer then stated that the health department should have done this study.
Public Health Technician Erin Hastert spoke on that stating the health department did have a program similar to the SWIGG study that 25 percent of it was being paid for by the county. The testing of the wells tested for 12 to 15 different items but it was abandoned when only 38 people from the entire county of over 16,000 people participated.
“I feel this SWIGG study came off on the wrong foot. It was not represented in a timely manner. It was rushed and people got angry and defensive. We want to test our water but it needs to be done openly and nothing will get fixed without data,” Hasert said.
Someone asked if the board took any action against the news media that reported the facts wrong. Sauer stated an attempt was made from an Iowa County board supervisor but nothing was done.
“There are any number of ways to handle clearly problematic misinformation by news outlets. You cannot give them any more, a lawsuit or have a more open relationship. I have made a point to have a more open relationship. I encourage all of us to have a more open dialogue so we can prevent these things from happening,” Marion answered.
Marion asked if corporation counsel, Nathan Russell, had seen the newest resolution. Sauer did not believe he had.
Marion moved to table the resolution. Marion didn’t feel comfortable moving forward with a resolution that had a fiscal not and a legal note on it without the attorney looking at it first.
“I want to know who determined this was in county board authority. I feel really uncomfortable with this,” Marion asked.
The motion failed for the lack of a second.
Someone questioned exception to the open records law can the committee use to justify not disclosing information.
“It will all be disclosed at the same time and the same press release. There isn’t any hiding about,” Sauer answered.
Land Conservation/Planning and Zoning manager, Terry Loeffelholz stated that at the meeting in Lancaster where the information was first released, it was a public and open meeting and not a press conference.
“They handed out the press release and the scientists went through what had been done already,” Loeffelholz.
Marion had asked the county several times to have the same meeting in Lafayette County. The same month the meeting was held in Lancaster, the Land Conservation Committee meeting was canceled.
“Not only did we have a public meeting like Lancaster did, we didn’t even have a Land Conservation meeting where people could come ask questions. The problem I have with the resolution is already information in this county has not been brought to light and made accessible to the public as it should have been,” Marion said.
“The intent of this resolution is once we get information we will meet and get the results out,” committee chairman Gerald Heimann clarified.
“The intent is not to keep any information private or hide it. It is for everyone to get it at the same time and hopefully report it correctly and hopefully not give Southwest Wisconsin a bad name,” Sauer added.
Hastert understood their intent but the way the original resolution was written made the county look bad.
“I understand this committee wasn’t trying to keep things secret, but that is not the way it appeared and that can hurt us a lot. We can fix the water and the wells but it is going to be hard to fix this. It makes us look like we are keeping secrets even though we are not,” Hastert said.
Andy Schilling called the question and made a motion to amend the resolution where they removed “Iowa and Grant” “Lafayette County Board chairs, or a designee approved by the County Board chair”, replacing it with “Lafayette County Health Department” in the first paragraph. John Bartels seconded that motion. The motion passed.
Marion argued taking the portion that says it is a legal note and it is within the county authority before it goes to county board because the attorney had not seen it yet.
“I know this thing is going to pass. I’ve counted the votes. We wouldn’t be looking at this, as it is if corporation counsel had looked at it. That is my opinion. As a county supervisor this is news to me that the resolutions I wrote on, on county board night that say within county board authority as a legal note have not actually been vetted by corporation council,” Marion stated.
Marion urged other members of the committee and members of the county board in attendance to not vote on the resolution.
Sauer stated Marion has the authority to bring up the legal note at the county board meeting Tuesday night where the resolution will be seen by the entire county board.
“This is why the freedom of the press and speech are so important. Thank goodness the press is here to witness that this is how things are currently done in this county,” Marion said.
Through a voice vote, the resolution passed, 5-2 with Marion and Carmen McDonald voting against and John Bartels, Micah Bahr, Jed Gant, Andy Schilling, and Gerald Heimman voting for.
Steve Prestegard of the Platteville Journal contributed to this story.