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Official: Sauk County government complaint policy doesn't impact public

Sauk County does not have to give specific notice that officials are going to discuss employee complaint procedures because internal policies don't much impact the public, an official said Tuesday.

News Republic file photo

The handling of government workplace complaints — including alleged fraud and ethics violations — is not the public’s concern, a Sauk County official said Tuesday.

Michelle Posewitz, the county’s personnel director, said that’s why she believes she did not have to specify on a Dec. 1 meeting agenda that her oversight panel was going to discuss the matter.

During a meeting Tuesday morning, the Sauk County Board’s Personnel Committee voted 5-0 to reapprove a policy it already adopted during that December meeting.

The policy sets forth procedures for dealing with employee complaints, and requires the county to hire an outside firm to accept anonymous reports of fraud and ethics violations.

Baraboo News Republic Editor Todd Krysiak recently filed an Open Meetings Law complaint over the December action, alleging it occurred under an agenda item — listed as “Policies/Ordinance Update” — that was not specific enough to alert the public and media of what was going to be discussed.

Posewitz told the committee Tuesday she believes the agenda item was appropriate, that the county’s legal counsel agrees, and that the complaint is without merit.

“Specifically, because it’s an internal policy, this specifically only applies to our employees,” Posewitz said in defending the meeting notice. “So it’s not necessarily an issue that has a lot of impact on the public, because it is our internal policy.”

Posewitz told the committee she included the policy on Tuesday’s agenda for reconsideration in an effort to be transparent. During the discussion, several supervisors criticized the newspaper for filing a complaint.

Recollections differ

Only three of the committee’s five members attended the December meeting, and two of them — Supervisors Henry Netzinger of Prairie du Sac and Tommy Lee Bychinski of Reedsburg — took issue Tuesday with how it has been described in the press. Before being corrected by Posewitz, they alleged the committee only approved a “report” on the new policy, but did not actually adopt it.

“My recollection is we approved a report,” Netzinger said. “We didn’t approve it to be put into the code book or anything like that. This would be a more appropriate time to forward this. … I think it was improperly reported.”

Bychinski agreed. “Thinking about what Henry had just said, I too think it was just a report on it,” he said. “We did not actually adopt it at that meeting.”

Posewitz said they were not correct. “So, you did, actually,” she said.

In addition to Posewitz’s account, the recollections of Netzinger and Bychinski are refuted by official county documents.

Minutes of the December meeting show Bychinski made a motion “to approve the updates to the HR Policies and Procedures Manual,” and the motion was carried. During the committee’s next meeting in January, Netzinger made the motion to approve those minutes.

The Sauk County Employee Policies and Procedures manual shows that it was revised to include new policy on Dec. 1, the day of the meeting.

Supervisor David Moore of Wisconsin Dells, who prepares minutes of the committee’s meetings, has said the panel did vote to approve the policy — not just a report on it — during the December meeting.

However, Moore has said he believes the meeting notice was sufficient. He said Tuesday that the newspaper was demonizing the committee because of its own failure to attend the Dec. 1 meeting.

“I feel like we showed up and did our job in December, and because other people didn’t show up and do their job, now all of a sudden we’re the bad guys,” Moore said. “So if we’ve got to do it again, fine, we’ll do it again.”

Advocate responds

An open government advocate took issue Tuesday with county officials’ justification for the lack of meeting agenda specificity, including Posewitz’s comment that the complaint and fraud reporting policy doesn’t really impact the public.

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders said county employees have a right to know when policies that affect them are going to be discussed, as do members of the public who pay their salaries.

“Sauk County seems more intent on justifying its improper actions than trying to learn from them,” Lueders said.

Sauk County District Attorney Kevin Calkins has referred the newspaper’s meetings complaint to the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Office of Open Government.

In a separate action Tuesday, the committee approved specific procedures related to the outside firm that will handle reports of fraud and ethics violations. The county will contract with Pennsylvania-based company Lighthouse Services, which will accept anonymous reports via phone, email, or its website.

Although he voted to approve the policy, Committee Chairman Tim Meister of the town of Dellona said he does not like giving employees the ability to report allegations anonymously. “If they get all these complaints and nobody signs their name to it, who do you go back to?” he said.

Others said employees are more likely to report concerns if they can be sure they won’t be retaliated against. The whistleblower policy also says malicious allegations may result in disciplinary action.

Follow Tim Damos on Twitter @timdamos