Rock County Board Chairman Richard Bostwick decided Tuesday to partially open a set of committee meetings to interview candidates for a recently vacated county board seat. However, the county is still not posting public notices for the meetings and is only allowing board supervisors to attend.
In a partial reversal of a process that had been set to roll out completely behind closed doors, Bostwick said Tuesday that he would open a set of five special committee meetings to county supervisors who wish to observe interviews of the candidates.
Under county rules, Bostwick as board chairman is allowed to recommend any candidate he wants to fill a vacated board seat.
But at least one county board member and two statewide open government advocates have criticized a preliminary part of the county’s process. Drawing criticism is Bostwick’s decision to keep closed to the general public the vetting of candidates seeking to serve as Janesville District 21 supervisor until the April 2022 election.
In an interview with The Gazette last week, county board member Wayne Gustina acknowledged that as board chair, Bostwick has the authority to recommend a candidate to the full county board for approval.
Gustina, who is not among the four supervisors Bostwick assigned to the committee, said a committee member told him last week that he could not attend the candidate interviews.
Gustina called Bostwick’s choice to close the meetings to most supervisors and all the public “not very transparent at all.”
On Monday, Bostwick said one of the six candidates for the vacant supervisor seat no longer seeks the open board seat, and another of the candidates has been “quarantined” at home with an illness. While the six candidates were previously identified, Bostwick declined to say who had withdrawn or was ill.
Bostwick said because of the ill candidate he decided to scuttle in-person interviews planned at the Rock County Courthouse on Tuesday. He said he decided to run the screenings virtually, with candidates appearing via Zoom video conference calls Tuesday while the board subcommittee interviewed candidates from a boardroom at the courthouse.
Bostwick said he felt more comfortable allowing supervisors not on the committee to attend the meetings if the candidates appeared virtually.
He said he initially sought to close the meeting to board members not on the panel to make the interviews “more uniform” and to avoid board members attending certain candidate interviews and not others.
After he switched candidate interviews from in-person to virtual, Bostwick said he reached out to Gustina to invite him to attend the meetings.
He said Gustina and board members not on the committee wouldn’t be allowed to participate in the Zoom interviews.
Bostwick said he thinks his naming of a candidate screening committee makes the process more transparent than in years past when he said some former county board chairs unilaterally recommended a candidate to fill a board vacancy without any feedback from the board.
“I don’t do that. I would never do that. I like to form a group and reach consensus. My vote does not count any more than anybody else’s,” Bostwick said. “I don’t know how much more fair I can be.”
Members on the panel will be able to vote on a top candidate alongside Bostwick—a move Bostwick said could help shape his recommendation to fill the seat—a decision he said might be announced later this week.
The full county board still must approve Bostwick’s choice of a board member to fill the vacancy.
Bostwick’s change in course only opens the meetings to county supervisors. The proceedings remained closed to local residents and the media.
Earlier this month, county corporation counsel Rich Greenlee told an Adams Publishing Group reporter that state and federal laws don’t require committees that vet candidates for open board seats to conduct their business at open meetings.
Bostwick told The Gazette on Tuesday that he’s still feeling out the public process of vetting candidates for open seats. Nevertheless, he said his earlier plan was based on the procedures followed by past board chairs and advice from Greenlee.
In a 2017 decision, the state Supreme Court ruled against similar, closed-door local government committee meetings held elsewhere in Wisconsin.
State statute indicates that any appointed or elected local government board member cannot be excluded from a government committee meeting unless the county can cite specific applicable exemptions that allow meeting behind closed doors.
Local governments are typically only allowed to hold closed meetings to discuss confidential personnel issues involving government employees, collective bargaining discussions, buying and selling property or strategy in legal matters that governments are likely to enter into.
The county has not cited any specific state statute that would legally exempt such a committee from conducting board supervisor candidate screenings in open, public session.
The Gazette has requested further guidance from the Open Government office of the state’s Attorney General, but as of Tuesday, the office had not responded.