After reading about the Grant County Board Administrative Committee meeting June 12 (found on page 8A of your favorite weekly newspaper), I’m not sure what’s worse — the fact county supervisors had to hold a meeting about getting along, or the fact that meeting was inappropriately held in closed session.
The fact that no action was taken after the meeting is immaterial. Neither the Grant County Board nor any other elective body gets to ditch the public when what they say at the meeting might be embarrassing.
It is embarrassing, though perhaps not surprising, that the county board’s senior leadership felt the need for such a meeting, and for the second consecutive year, according to one supervisor. Congress and the state Legislature are hardly models of public comportment either, hiding behind party labels instead of representing their constituents, and resorting to personal attacks and truth-challenged obfuscations instead of arguing the issues.
The county board is nonpartisan, but if Sup. Mark Stead of Platteville is to be believed, “the county board is divided like it’s never been divided before, at least during my tenure on the board.” Stead added that “the mean, ugly, hateful, vindictive, two-faced, lying, backstabbing antics have got to stop.”
Of course, when the concept of open government is abused, that allows vindictive, two-faced, lying, backstabbing antics, etc., to flourish.
The committee dived into closed session for “discussion of issues surrounding conduct of particular persons in county board meetings, departmental meetings and committee meetings,” according to the posted agenda, specifically “social or personal histories, disciplinary data of specific persons and/or preliminary investigation of personnel problems which, if discussed in public, would be likely to have a substantial adverse impact upon the reputation of any person referred to in such histories or data, or involved in such problems.”
You might think from reading that that the committee was discussing the conduct of county employees. Discussions involving “dismissal, demotion, licensing or discipline of any public employee or person licensed by a board or commission or the investigation of charges against such person” are allowed to be held in closed session. But that is intended for government employees, defined as “any individual who is employed by an authority, other than an individual holding local public office or a state public office, or any individual who is employed by an employer other than an authority.”
County supervisors are clearly not county employees. The Open Meetings Law was never designed to allow elected officials to duck out of the public’s eye when being in public is personally inconvenient, or exposes them as being one person in public and someone else in private.
The real reason a majority of the committee (including County Board chair Larry Wolf, who cast the tie-breaking vote on going into closed session) wanted to meet in closed session was to avoid the news media covering the meeting. That means not only the First Amendment-protected media, but, more importantly, us voters.
The story quotes one of the supervisors who attended the Administrative Committee meeting, Sup. Carol Beals of Platteville, as saying that “some did not speak openly with press around or worried about accidentally talking ill of their peers in public. She felt only a closed session would allow them to deal with the issue, and that was the point of having attorneys to help them with the situation.”
The Open Meetings Law was never designed to give elected officials a way to prevent themselves from “accidentally talking ill of their peers in public,” nor to allow elected officials to work through their personal differences in private. The president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, Bill Lueders, calls this “an abusive interpretation of the statute,” and he is correct. The only Administrative Committee members on the right side of this issue are Stead and Sups. John Patcle of Potosi and Robert Scallon of Boscobel, who correctly voted against going to closed session. (Patcle wanted the issue to be handled by “the full county board, and not some kangaroo court.” That seems harsh, but who, other than those who were at the meeting, know what went on behind closed doors?)
I’m not sure why we have reached the point where elected officials cannot disagree about issues without being personally disagreeable about it. You can’t blame partisan politics, since there is no D or R after county supervisors’ names. It’s hard to tell if the winners of whatever the issue is are not being graceful winners, or the losers in whatever the issue is are being sore losers, or both. It’s also hard to tell where the line between unfair comment and oversensitivity is.
Ultimately, though, the reasons don’t matter. Grant County voters have entrusted the county board with tens of millions of their tax dollars. Grant County voters should expect more from their elected representatives. Disagreement on the merits of issues is to be expected. Working together should be expected. That includes not ducking into closed session when saying what you really think might make you look bad. Whether or not a tortured legal rationale could be devised for going into closed session, going into closed session was wrong.
Scallon showed his level of disgust at his fellow supervisors’ conduct by saying “We’re supposed to be the cream of the county.” If county supervisors can’t get along with each other, and that is impeding county business from getting done, perhaps it’s time for some new county supervisors.