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Rule change would limit public comments at Sauk County meetings

December 3, 2018 GMT

A proposed change to Sauk County Board rules would limit the subject matter that members of the public may address when they speak at meetings.

The board’s five-person Executive and Legislative Committee will consider the rule change during a meeting Tuesday morning in Baraboo. If approved, it would be forwarded to the full board for possible adoption at its Dec. 18 meeting.

Rules currently allow members of the public to speak to the board about any issues they choose for up to three minutes. The proposal would leave in place the same time limit, but would restrict topics to items on the meeting agenda or other matters under the board’s authority.

“It’s really about efficiency and keeping things moving along,” said committee member Wally Czuprynko of Lake Delton, who in September requested that the panel review public comment procedures.

Czuprynko said that members of the public often speak to the board about subjects that are not germane to county government. The proposed rule change, he said, is not intended to prevent people from sharing their views, but rather to ensure that comments from the public are relevant.

Discussions about public comment rules began following a contentious August meeting at which many citizens weighed in on countywide advisory referendums and criticized the board for its dysfunction.

Czuprynko told fellow committee members in September that he heard complaints from citizens who believed requests to speak at the August meeting were taken out of order and speakers were inappropriately cut off. He also said some citizens attacked board members, and suggested the committee create a more formal set of public comment rules.

The committee asked Daniel Olson, the county’s attorney, to review best practices and the rules that other county boards have in place for public comment.

After his review, Olson told the panel in November that although state law does not require boards to allow public comment, most that do allow it place some parameters or limitations on the process.

He said speaking at public meetings does not carry the same level of First Amendment protections as traditional public forums, such as parks and street corners.

“So we can place constraints on the use of that forum,” Olson told the panel last month. “It’s not the same as standing up on a street corner, or a public park, or marching down Main Street, where you have a nearly absolute right to do that and to talk about whatever you want to talk about.”

The committee asked Olson to draft a short rule change based on his review of best practices.

The proposed change that will be considered Tuesday only involves subject matter, and does not address concerns – such as the order of speakers, cutting off comments or attacks on supervisors – that kicked off discussions in September.

Board Chairman Peter Vedro of Baraboo said some of those issues already have been addressed. For example, the county clerk now numbers public comment request forms to ensure that speakers are taken in order.

However, Vedro said he would like to see the rule change specifically address civility so that public speakers may not level personal attacks against board members or county staff. He said the committee may decide to tweak the proposal Tuesday.

“All of those issues will be brought up at (the meeting),” Vedro said. “We will be asking people to be civil and will define what that means.”

Regarding attacks on county board members, Olson previously told the committee that slander of a public official has a very high threshold. The board rule that addresses debate and public comment procedures states that in all cases “personalities shall be avoided and propriety observed.”

If the committee approves the rule change, it would require a two-thirds vote of the full board in order to pass. The board may change its rules with a simple majority vote only at the beginning of each two-year term, and at the midterm.

During discussions about potential rule changes prior to the spring election, former Supervisor David Moore of Wisconsin Dells proposed cutting the time allotted to public speakers in half, to 90 seconds.

He also suggested a change that would have prohibited speakers from commenting at more than two consecutive monthly meetings and from advocating “violence or threats to break the law.”

Members of the public packed a room within the county’s West Square Building during a February meeting to oppose the changes. Moore withdrew the proposal during the meeting.