Sauk County settles lawsuit with newspaper over records

May 1, 2019

The Sauk County Board voted 15-14 Monday to settle a lawsuit with the Baraboo News Republic over the release of documents.

After a series of motions and votes related to the 2017 suit, supervisors narrowly voted to hand over documents to the newspaper, and pay $35,000 to reimburse a portion of its attorney’s fees. The county’s insurance provider, Wisconsin County Mutual Insurance Group, will pay another $10,000.

“This is a step forward to show we’re committed to open government,” said Supervisor Tom Kriegl, who represents rural Baraboo.

The withheld records mainly involve the case of a town of Bear Creek man found dead on property the county deemed a public health hazard, as well as controversies over the hiring and firing of administrative officials.

The board has debated how best to handle the lawsuit for more than a year. On Monday, Supervisor John Dietrich of Reedsburg moved to delay a vote on the settlement until the board’s May meeting, in hopes of conferring with the insurance company.

Corporation Council Daniel Olson said Wisconsin County Mutual would proceed with an appeal unless the settlement was approved Monday. Dietrich’s motion failed, 9-20.

Supervisor Carl Gruber of Baraboo argued approving the settlement would require a two-thirds majority because it constitutes a change to the county’s $96 million budget. The settlement money is to come from the county’s insurance fund, which Gruber said is to be spent only on deductibles and denied claims. Gruber, who said he wrote the policy as a county staff member in 1996, contended it can’t be used to pay a legal settlement.

Olson disagreed. Board Chair Peter Vedro accepted the attorney’s opinion and ruled a super majority wasn’t necessary.

Supervisor Brian Peper of Loganville said Gruber’s interpretation should carry weight because he wrote the policy. “We are overlooking that due to an opinion of somebody that didn’t write the rules,” Peper said. “Don’t you think we should take that into advisement?”

Administrative Coordinate Alene Kleczek Bolin read the policy aloud and said, “We don’t have the money in the budget anywhere else to pay for it.”

Gruber appealed Vedro’s ruling. Before a vote on the appeal, Dietrich said the board shouldn’t invalidate a long-held policy merely because it’s inconvenient now. “We are not, apparently, a government body of laws if we do that,” Dietrich said. “Shame on us if we do that.”

The motion to appeal failed 13-15 with two supervisors absent and the chairman abstaining.

The board then voted accept the settlement.

The newspaper sued the county in November 2017, contesting the government’s refusal to release certain documents and its redactions to others. Thirteen months later, an out-of-county judge sided with the newspaper on nearly all contested matters and ordered the county to turn over records.

Citing concerns over the $35,000 expense, several County Board members have opposed the settlement and sought to push the matter toward appeal.

In February, the board proposed a lower payout of $10,000 total. The newspaper rejected that offer, and county officials’ attempts to get the insurance provider to cover a larger portion of the settlement were unsuccessful.

On April 18 the board adjourned its meeting before considering the settlement, necessitating a special meeting Monday to consider the matter and an unrelated item involving changes to board rules.