Having been found in violation twice in the last six months, the Oneida County Board of Supervisors has struggled recently to comply with the state's open meetings law.
As a result, the topic has been frequently included on the board's monthly meeting agendas. This trend continued Tuesday as chairman Dave Hintz took time to discuss the steps the board is taking to improve transparency and follow the law.
Hintz discussed the areas in need of improvement and outlined some of the changes that have been made.
"A priority, along with safety, that needs improvement is compliance with open meetings laws," Hintz said. "As you are aware, we had some training back in February in front of the full county board. We've had some issues with, what I call traditional items being on our agenda for the full county board with things such as 'other business' and reviewing the county code, other business is mentioned. Also, some dangerous things like 'unfinished business,' which is just too ambiguous for a meeting agenda. Our corporate counsel has suggested some updates and rewritten the county code in draft form to bring it up to date in compliance with open meeting laws at the state level."
Hintz said that draft will be brought to the next administration committee meeting, and upon approval, to the county board in June.
The county also established a 48-hour rule for county supervisors to attend committee meetings.
If a supervisor wishes to attend a meeting of a committee on which he or she does not serve, they must notify county clerk Tracy Hartman 48 hours in advance in order to amend an agenda if that supervisor's attendance creates a quorum.
Supervisor Robb Jensen expressed concern with the 48-hour rule in the event of an agenda being amended less than 48 hours before the committee meets.
"The 48 hours is your own rule. You can certainly modify it," corporation counsel Brian Desmond said. "I think the administration committee can put it on their next agenda and discuss possible solutions. Also, I think this came up when the policy was first enacted and I think it was indicated that if you weren't going to make that cutoff, you could always submit written comments to the committee in regards to whatever that item was. But, I think it's a proper subject for the administration committee to look at. Make sure you put it on the next agenda and you can discuss it."
Hintz also stated he would be attending a seminar hosted by the Wisconsin Counties Association to glean more information on the open meetings law.
"I think it's something we have to have sensitivity to, it's something we - like safety - still have work to do on to improve," Hintz said.
Supervisor Jack Sorensen responded to comments that the The Lakeland Times, sister paper of the River News, only comments when Oneida County violates the open meetings law.
Sorensen referenced a recent article in the Times and River News in which it was noted that the Forestry, Land and Recreation Committee moved an item from closed session to open session for the sake of public transparency.
"It is possible to get accolades from The Lakeland Times on open meetings," Sorensen said. "Recently there was a front page article with regards to the forestry committee and how we took stuff out of the closed session because of the open meetings laws and put it into open session. So it's possible for us, as a county board, to eventually get accolades from The Lakeland Times."
Mott lays down challenge
Earlier in the meeting, Oneida County zoning director Karl Jennrich gave the board an update on shoreland zoning implementation.
Jennrich reviewed for the board the action taken in recent months, including the public hearings that have been held.
He also stated in the five meetings since the public hearings concluded, the committee has addressed concerns related to how to measure height within NR 115, reducing the size of boathouses - which will not exceed 720 square feet on lakes of 500 acres or more, while not exceeding 336 square feet on lakes less than 500 acres - along with defining slopes and when to require engineered shoreyard alteration permits and address the concerns related to the unzoned towns of Enterprise, Monico and Sugar Camp.
"NR 115 (the state's shoreline zoning law) is the minimum and the maximum, so the county doesn't have a lot of wiggle room to change things," Jennrich said. "Some of the things they have the ability to change were discussed at these public hearings and the committee solicited input from the public."
For the sizes of boathouses, the committee has proposed holding another public hearing, but a date has not been scheduled.
Sorensen also had Jennrich clarify the situation with the three unzoned towns in regards to how they may factor into the final decision on the finished ordinance.
"I've been given walking orders by the committee to basically state that general zoning only applies to towns that are comprehensively zoned and it would apply to two lakes in Sugar Camp," Jennrich said.
Sorensen also asked if a decision would be withheld until a response is received from the attorney general, and Jennrich did not believe it would.
Supervisor Bob Mott stepped to the podium once Jennrich finished his presentation and opened the floor for questions.
He then proceeded to challenge the planning and development committee.
"I want to thank Karl and [assistant zoning director] Pete (Wegner) for the massive undertaking that this rewrite has been. I want to thank [the committee] for the massive hours they've spent, but at the same time I would like to suggest that your efforts have failed every Oneida County citizen," Mott said. "If one of you on the committee at the end, can stand up and say this rewrite is in the best interest of the lakes in Oneida County, I would like you to stand up and say that."
Mott then went on to detail some of the unique features of Oneida County that he believes are at risk with the new state-mandated ordinance.
"We have 1,100 lakes here, we have a $221 million tourism industry driven by lakes and streams and yet we are acceding to the state," Mott continued. "Saying 'Yes, we are lowering our standards to be the same as the minimum in NR 115.'"
Mott followed with a history of shoreland zoning in Wisconsin before issuing his challenge to the committee.
"I would like to challenge the planning and development committee to rewrite the county shoreland protection ordinance and include language that goes beyond the minimum in NR 115," Mott said. "Yet, without a whimper the P and D has rolled over by lessening protections for the thing that drives that tourism industry: Oneida County's lakes, rivers and streams. I would ask you to rewrite the shoreland protection ordinance so it protects those resources. It's in the interest of Oneida County."
Mott stated that he would like the committee and county board to force the state to enforce the new ordinance restrictions in Act 55.
He also stated he was not "ripping" the committee.
"You were doing what you were told to do, but I do not think you are doing what's best for Oneida County," Mott concluded.
Nick Sabato may be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @SabatoNick.
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