I admit it. I am really out of my element here. I’m not an attorney. I was led to believe that county government must operate in the open, that policy decisions and the reasons for them were to be discussed publicly. At the Iron County Forestry Committee meeting yesterday, various members of that committee and the County Board Chairman, upon being asked the question repeatedly by Iron County Citizen, Tom Podlesney, clearly said, “We have not made a decision.”
Not to belabor the point but the manual on open meetings law which refers to closed sessions to consult with an attorney reads:
"The exemption in Wis. Stat. § 19.85(1 )(g) authorizes a closed session for "conferring with legal counsel for the governmental body who is rendering oral or written advice concerning strategy to be adopted by the body with respect to litigation in which it is or is likely to become involved."
So my befuddled mind is struggling with the legal logic. If you have not made a (policy) decision, how can you go into closed session with your attorney to discuss the strategy for implementing that decision.
Mike Pope, corporation counsel for Iron County, whom I believe actually agreed that a closed session without a policy was illegal, kept saying, “This action will lead to litigation.”, while referring to the closed session. How did he know that? Had there been private discussions beforehand? With no policy, “no decision”, as Mr. Pinardi, County Board Chair, said, how would one know it would lead to litigation? What if the committee had decided to recommend changing the ordinance to allow the LCO to remain? Or what if they had decided to punt and say, “Treaty rights supersede our ordinance” ? Or what if they had said, “Let’s just ask them (the LCO) to come in every two weeks and renew their permit”? Or what if they had said, “This is no big deal, just issue them a citation”? (Issuing a ticket, by the way, is not litigation.)
Those were all options before the closed session. By the way, there is also no record in previous committee records that a decision had ever been made. So what must have happened in closed session for the committee to arrive at a decision – the policy to recommend litigation? Their attorney (more about that phrase later) must have explained the situation and the various ordinances and options to them. THAT INFORMATION IS NOT A SECRET. IT IS PUBLIC INFORMATION.
That information should have been disclosed in a public forum. The questions which must have arisen from the board members should have been asked publicly. The decision to begin litigation should have been made publicly. Then, and only then, should a secret (closed) meeting occurred to map out strategy. Am I crazy, or should the development of a public policy which could end up costing the taxpayers of Iron County millions of dollars, lead to “calling out the guard”, and make us all look like a bunch of racist rubes, be made in public.
Then there was the incredibly arrogant statement made by Mr. Pinardi. He turned to Mr. Podlesney, a resident of Iron County, and said in an exasperated tone, “We just want to get advice from our attorney.” Pardon me, chairman Pinardi, whose attorney? OK, let’s be charitable; Pinardi might have been using the word “our” to refer to all of the people of Iron County. Somehow I can’t bring myself to come to believe that.
Some have commented that this open meetings stuff is a minor issue. Why get excited about it? Well, actually open meetings violations are punishable by fines for the individuals who participate. Camping in the same place for more than two weeks is not. Illegal "camping" happens all the time in Iron County and the county does nothing about it. Just ask my neighbor Mike who has been complaining for years to the county about someone illegally camping (staying in a storage shed with an uninspected septic system) in our residential neighborhood.
Because of being enrolled in a day-long wetlands workshop, I was unable to wait until the committee returned from closed session. Good reports on the rest of the meeting can be read here, and here. You can read Attorney Stella's legal perspective here.
You can watch a video of the meeting after closed session here:
*Photo by Rebecca Kemble
The county board agenda regarding this issue follows: