A sheriff's department investigation of a Lakeland Times complaint alleging an open-meetings violation by two Oneida County supervisors has found the two did indeed discuss topics not on the meeting's agenda.
The department has forwarded its findings against supervisors Robb Jensen and Jack Sorensen to the Oneida County district attorney for a charging decision.
The Times and publisher Gregg Walker have alleged the two engaged in an illegal discussion about building a new highway facility that did not appear on the Aug. 19 Oneida County capital improvement program subcommittee meeting agenda, a meeting at which the committee reviewed various departmental capital improvement requests for 2020.
The agenda for that meeting lists no discussion about a potential new highway facility, yet, as The Times has reported, Jensen and Sorensen engaged in an extended discussion about the merits of a new or expanded facility.
No new highway facility is proposed for 2020, and, The Times alleged, during review of the highway department's 2020 capital improvement requests, which included upgrades for the existing building, Jensen and Sorensen undertook a discussion about a potential new or expanded highway facility that stretched on for more than six minutes total.
In a Sept. 11 officer's supplemental report, Oneida County detective sergeant Kelly Moermond substantiated the complaint's allegations.
"It was found that Jensen and Sorensen were first talking about building a new brine building," Moermond wrote. "They then got off topic and began talking about building a new highway building as well as east side and west expansion locations for a new highway shop. Jensen and Sorensen also began speaking about Kwik Trip being interested in the highway shop in this portion of the meeting."
As The Times also alleged in the complaint, the two supervisors returned to the topic in another portion of the meeting, Moermond determined.
"Later in the meeting, Jensen and Sorensen again spoke of building a new highway shop rather than fixing or upgrading the exhaust system on the current shop," she wrote. "Sorensen also spoke of putting all this money into the existing building but suggested they should build a new building and that they need to move forward with building a new building."
Those discussions were not posted to the public, Moermond determined.
"These topics involving building a new highway department (building) were clearly not on the agenda for the 2020 capital improvement meeting," she wrote. "This case will be forwarded to the Oneida County district attorney's office for their review on the open meeting violation."
Walker reiterated this week that the two supervisors pursued a significant discussion about a new facility that rose to the level of a violation.
"It contained arguments by the supervisors about why the existing facility should be abandoned for a new one," Walker said.
Indeed, Walker said, Sorensen called the upgrades Band-Aids, and Jensen said he and others that he did not name were putting numbers together and scouring potential sites for a new facility.
Walker again called on district attorney Michael Schiek to aggressively prosecute the supervisors.
"As Mr. Jensen himself has said, a new highway facility is an emotional issue," Walker said. "This is not an insignificant aside about something that carries no consequences for taxpayers. It raises questions about the county's priorities. Do we put money into roads or expensive government buildings?"
At a cost of more than $10 million, building a new highway facility also raises other questions about the responsible use of tax dollars, Walker said.
"As such, any discussion of a new facility must be on an agenda, particularly if those discussing the topic are advocating for a particular position," he said. "Supervisors cannot be allowed to manipulate tangental agenda items to promote special interest causes and leave the public and those who might oppose such projects in the dark about those discussions."
Walker again said supervisors should use advice given in the attorney general's open meetings compliance guide when determining whether a topic to be discussed should be on an agenda.
"In order to draft a meeting notice that complies with the reasonableness standard, a good rule of thumb will be to ask whether a person interested in a specific subject would be aware, upon reading the notice, that the subject might be discussed," the compliance manual states.
The agenda for the Aug. 19 meeting did not come close to meeting that standard, Walker wrote in the original complaint.
"The August 19, 2019, subcommittee notice simply lists, 'Review of 2020 Capital Improvement Program Project Process and Requests,' and lists a presentation by the highway department of its proposals," the complaint states. "There is no mention of a new highway facility. No one reading that agenda could possibly know that a discussion about a new facility that would exceed $10 million in taxpayer costs would be discussed, much less advocated for. That's especially true because the county had previously and publicly decided not to pursue a new facility - as was reiterated several times during the August 19 meeting - and has not publicly changed that position."
As such, Walker concluded, the only reasonable expectation by those reading the agenda would be a discussion about upgrades and proposals for the existing facility, not a re-opening of the discussion about a new facility.
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
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