A Rock County Board member says he wants to attend meetings of a subcommittee vetting candidates seeking to fill an open supervisor seat. But even if he finds out when the committee meets, he said he has been told it’s unlikely either he or the general public will be allowed in the room.
Wayne Gustina, a county supervisor from Beloit, shares the concern of two advocates for open government that the process shouldn’t be shielded from public scrutiny.
Gustina said he has asked but not yet learned from county administration officials, board chairman Rich Bostwick or the county’s lawyer when a subcommittee assembled by Bostwick will interview the individuals vying to represent Janesville’s District 23.
The seat was vacated last month by Supervisor Doug Wilde and will be filled by an appointee until the next election in April 2022.
Gustina wants to know when the committee plans to meet because he said he would like to attend to hear what questions the panel asks the candidates and how they respond.
In recent years, Gustina said, committees formed to help vet and appoint new board members held meetings open to the public, including interested board members.
This time around, however, Gustina said he was told by a supervisor on the selection committee that board members other than Bostwick and those Bostwick picked to serve on the committee will not be allowed to attend the meetings.
Nevertheless, Gustina said he planned to attend, but as of Wednesday afternoon, he didn’t know when the meetings are scheduled—or even the identity of the committee members.
Gustina called the process “not very transparent at all.”
“As a county board supervisor, I would like to go there and sit in on the interviews. Not to ask questions but just to sit in. I want to make sure that they (the committee) ask the same identical questions of each candidate the same way; to know that things aren’t being swayed. And I’d get to know more about who the candidates are. And who’s on the actual committee.”
Last week, Rock County Corporation Counsel Rich Greenlee told an Adams Publishing Group reporter that under state and county rules, there is no requirement that county committees helping to fill open board seats must hold meetings open to the public.
Greenlee didn’t cite state statute that would exempt such meetings from the state open meeting law. He said that under county board rules, Bostwick as the board chair has the ultimate authority to select and recommend appointments for open board seats.
The Gazette reported last week that Tom Kamenick, a media lawyer as well as the president and founder of the Wisconsin Transparency Project, thinks the county is breaking the law by holding committee meetings behind closed doors.
Bill Lueders, a journalist and open meetings advocate who leads the nonprofit Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, also told The Gazette that Rock County shouldn’t assume it is legal to create committees “that operate in secret.”
In 2017, the state Supreme Court decided that a governing body in Appleton had improperly closed meetings and barred the public from attending. The court ruled that any committee formed by a local government to handle government business is bound by then state open meetings law.
Bostwick did not immediately return a Gazette reporter’s call seeking comment Wednesday. Greenlee was also unavailable for comment.
In an email to The Gazette on Wednesday, Rock County Administrator Josh Smith said Bostwick had asked Rock County Board Supervisors Wes Davis, Ron Bomkamp, Mary Beaver and Russ Podzilni to be members of the ad hoc committee that will help Bostwick vet board supervisor candidates for the District 23 seat.
It is unclear whether Bostwick’s committee has any other members besides the four board supervisors named. The county hasn’t given notice of when or where the committee meetings would be held.
Smith in his email did not explain why the county believes it is allowed to hold board appointment committee meetings behind closed doors.
A District 11 supervisor seat which came open earlier this year has already been filled by appointment. Two people applied for the appointment. It’s not clear if Bostwick used the same committee and the same process to fill the seat.
In his email, Smith said dates had not yet been set for interviews of the six candidates.
Last week Smith revealed the six candidates to be:
- John Burt, a construction project manager.
- Tricia Clasen, a communications professor and interim dean of the College of Integrated Studies at UW-Whitewater.
- Patrick Garvin, a retired Rock County deputy sheriff.
- Craig Gramke, president of Gramke Monument Works in Janesville.
- Michael Sheridan, principal owner at Lifeline 2 Recovery.
- Mary Jo Villa, director of human resources at Hendricks Holding Company who also held several executive-level positions at Bliss Communications and Adams Publishing Group, the former and current owners of The Gazette.