DOJ: Sauk County meeting notice was insufficient
The Wisconsin Department of Justice has found that Sauk County officials should have provided more specific notice to the public before adopting new procedures for handling employee complaints and fraud investigations.
The DOJ’s findings are in response to an Open Meetings Law complaint the Baraboo News Republic filed against one county department manager and three Sauk County Board members in January.
In a letter written earlier this month, which the newspaper received Thursday, DOJ Assistant Attorney General Sarah Larson wrote that the agenda for a Dec. 1 meeting of the board’s Personnel Committee “should have been more specific.”
The meeting notice included an item listed as “Policies/Ordinance Update,” a reoccurring discussion on the committee’s monthly agendas that typically resulted in no meaningful action.
Under the agenda item, the newspaper later learned, the committee took action to approve a policy that set forth new employee complaint procedures. The policy also established that the county would hire an outside firm to accept anonymous reports of fraud and ethics violations.
In January, News Republic Editor Todd Krysiak filed a complaint with the Sauk County District Attorney’s Office, which forwarded the matter to the DOJ.
In her letter, Larson wrote that the state agency will not pursue an enforcement action against the county officials named in the complaint. She said she does not believe they intended to circumvent the law, and that the case “does not appear to present novel issues of law that coincide with matters of statewide concern.”
Although Larson stated she could not be certain an Open Meetings Law violation occurred, she said “the facts available to me show that a court could reasonably find that that (sic) a notice violation may have occurred, given the lack of specificity in the December 1, 2017 agenda.”
After discussing the matter with a county attorney, Larson wrote that the committee is now “on notice” as to its obligations under the law, and that she expects “that no future violations will occur.”
After the newspaper filed its complaint, Sauk County Personnel Director Michelle Posewitz – one of the four individuals named in the document – rescheduled the discussion for a February meeting under a more specific agenda item. The committee then readopted the policy.
During that meeting, Posewitz justified the lack of specificity on the December agenda by saying that the county’s internal employee policies have little impact on the public. Committee members also criticized the newspaper for filing a complaint, and rejected the notion that the prior agenda was insufficient.
Larson took issue with Posewitz’s statements in her letter, saying that employee complaint procedures and fraud investigations are subjects “in which the public has a particular interest,” and that they “should be noticed appropriately under the open meetings law.”
In response to a request for comment Friday, Posewitz declined to say whether she still believes that the notice was sufficient, or whether she still believes that internal policies are of little public importance.
“As previously explained, Sauk County believes in as much openness as possible,” she wrote in an email. “We proactively addressed the issue as identified at a meeting earlier this year. We will continue to be as specific as possible with agenda items.”
The three committee members named in the complaint included supervisors Henry Netzinger of Prairie du Sac, Tommy Lee Bychinski of Reedsburg, and David Moore of Wisconsin Dells. Moore no longer serves on the personnel committee, and Netzinger is no longer on the board.
The December discussion was not captured on video, because the Personnel Committee is one of several county panels that do not make make meeting recordings public.
Krysiak said he was disappointed the public did not know the discussion was going to take place ahead of time because the agenda was unclear. He said it’s obvious that when government officials change the rules for reporting fraud and workplace complaints, the taxpaying public has an interest.
“I am glad to hear the Department of Justice agrees,” he said.