Oneida County supervisor Jack Sorensen has acknowledged to the county's district attorney that he believes he crossed the line and discussed a topic not on a meeting agenda, an action which prompted an open meetings complaint by this newspaper.
Sorensen sent the email to district attorney Michael Schiek on Sept. 27.
The Times and its publisher, Gregg Walker, had alleged Sorensen and fellow supervisor Robb Jensen 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, at which the committee reviewed various departmental capital improvement requests for 2020.
A sheriff's department investigation of the complaint also found the two did indeed discuss a topic not on the meeting's agenda.
In the email to Schiek, Sorensen said he had reviewed Walker's complaint, as well as the sheriff's department's review of the meeting recordings, and came to the same conclusion that the sheriff's department and Walker had.
"I agree with Mr. Walker that I stepped over the line from why I was opposed to the projects for the Oneida County Highway Department to advocating for a new building," Sorensen wrote. "This issue should be on a properly posted agenda for committee or county board in the future."
Sorensen said he was bothered by his violation, given his long history of supporting open government.
"I have long been a vocal supporter of both open meetings and open records and find my transgression to be personally troubling," he wrote. "I thank Mr. Walker for bringing this violation to both your and my attention."
As Sorensen pointed out, the district attorney has not yet made a charging decision in the case.
"As I have told others, you have a job to do and I will respect your decisions," Sorensen wrote.
For his part, Jensen said he would have no comment at this point regarding the complaint.
This week, Walker welcomed Sorensen's admission.
"There is still no excuse for the violation, but let us hope this leads to a greater awareness of the law by supervisors during meetings," Walker said. "Since we filed our complaint, we do see a less cavalier approach to conducting meetings, where 'anything goes' has been the prevailing practice for a long time."
However, Walker still called upon Schiek to prosecute the violation and issue a fine.
"We appreciate Mr. Sorensen's acknowledgement and believe it to be sincere, but a confession cannot be allowed to serve as a substitute for consequences," he said. "Otherwise, everyone will be tempted to continue to ignore the law and simply confess later. Then it becomes another tool in the toolbox of obstruction."
Walker also urged Jensen to own up to the infraction.
"His 'no comment' silence is deafening, especially because he's not so silent when it comes to discussing a new highway department at every opportunity, whether it's on an agenda or not," he said.
The agenda for the Aug. 19 meeting listed 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."
During the meeting, among other things, 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.
At a cost of more than $10 million, building a new highway facility raises 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 has urged supervisors to 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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