The reasons elected officials leave office before their terms end—illness, family obligations or opportunities to run for higher office—matter less than how the resulting vacancies are filled to represent us, the citizenry.
Consider the replacement of supervisors on the Rock County Board when members depart before their terms expire. We have concerns about how these seats are filled and whether the process is publicly accountable.
Setting aside questions about the qualifications of those who are appointed, we worry that the process by which supervisor candidates are vetted is unnecessarily secretive and potentially in violation of the Wisconsin open meetings law.
The Rock County Board currently has two open seats. Supervisor Kaelyb Lokrantz resigned in late May after moving out of Beloit’s 11th District. Then in mid-June, Supervisor Doug Wilde stepped down from representing District 23, a city of Janesville district bounded by I-90/39 to the west, Milwaukee Street to the north and Highway 14 to the east.
The county board voted to appoint Janelle Crary to serve the remainder of Lokrantz’s term. Five people applied to replace Wilde until the next election in April 2022. His replacement could get a vote at either the Aug. 12 or Sept. 9 board meeting.
The vote of the full board to appoint Crary—taken at an open, public meeting—came after a murkier process undertaken by a selection committee comprised of supervisors and unelected members assembled by County Board Chairman Richard Bostwick. Residents say they have been rebuffed when they’ve asked for information about the makeup of the selection committee, permission to attend its meetings or even get copies of the minutes.
This raises red flags for advocates of open government, including this newspaper. Tom Kamenick, president and founder of the Wisconsin Transparency Project, said, “Governmental bodies cannot create other bodies to help them perform their work without those secondary bodies also being open to the public. Operating this way is putting the county at serious risk of substantial legal liability.”
Rock County Corporation Counsel Richard Greenlee argued the committee is only recommending to Bostwick who should be appointed before he calls for a full county board vote on a candidate. That means Bostwick retains appointment authority, Greenlee claimed, so the open meetings law can’t be invoked to open the door to committee deliberations.
Bostwick “could handle the (appointment) process by himself,” Kamenick said, “but once he creates a group to assist him, it has to give public notice and meet in open session.”
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, echoed Kamenick, saying the board “should not assume that it is on firm legal ground in creating committees that operate in secret.”
Lueders noted that Kamenick, an attorney, won a similar case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2017.
“When (Kamenick) says the county is ‘at serious risk of substantial legal liability,’ he should be taken seriously,” Lueders said.
In that case, Krueger v. Appleton, the state Supreme Court reversed circuit and appeals court decisions and significantly expanded what is considered a meeting of a governmental body and subject to the open meetings law.
The case involved John Krueger, a parent in the Appleton Area School District who raised concerns about materials included in a ninth-grade communications class. Krueger was later barred from meetings of a committee set up to review course materials and make recommendations to the school board. The school district won in lower courts.
The state Supreme Court, however, ruled that “Where a governmental entity adopts a rule authorizing the formation of committees and conferring on them the power to take collective action, such committees are ‘created by ... rule’ under §19.82(1) and the open meetings law applies to them.”
Like the Rock County Board’s selection committee, the Appleton School District’s course materials review committee was tasked with making recommendations, not final decisions, but it lost its case.
What’s at stake in Rock County is arguably much greater than high school curriculum. Here, we’re talking about nothing less than who gets to make decisions about health care, road safety and the local tax burden on the entire adult citizenry of the county.
“Presumably Supervisor Bostwick is a man of integrity and perhaps his committee selections are random and fair,” Beloit resident Sheryl Hengeveld wrote in a letter to The Gazette. “If that is the case, why is the process shrouded in secrecy? Why secret meetings? Why avoid questions, phone calls and emails from other supervisors and Rock County citizens?”