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Legal, ethical training helps supervisors stay aboveboard

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Dave Bretl | June 9, 2014

School may be drawing to a close for thousands of children across the county, but Walworth County Board supervisors will be hitting the books this summer. Every two years, as part of our effort to educate new board members about the laws that impact their elected service, we conduct a number of classes ranging from open meetings requirements to state ethics laws. The training is helpful for newly elected supervisors and serves as a refresher for returning board members. 

The classes aren't designed to turn supervisors into municipal law experts, but are designed to provide enough practical information to help them follow the law or at least to identify situations when they might want to ask our legal staff for guidance.

The training includes the following topics:
• Open meetings. Because legal counsel attends most of our standing committee meetings, the class focuses on situations that could occur outside of the board chambers that raise open meetings concerns. Violations of the law can occur innocently enough, but nevertheless must still be avoided. Email, for example, can inadvertently turn into an unnoticed meeting, when one official sends an email to a peer, who comments on it and, in turn, forwards it to another elected official. If a quorum of members reads and comments on the email, a virtual meeting can take place outside of the public's view and likely would be considered a violation of the law.

Meetings after an official meeting, such as a gathering at a restaurant, may be a social thing to do, but are problematic. We strongly discourage our members from gathering in this manner in any group that would constitute a quorum of the board or any committee.

• Public records. Records, both paper and digital, kept by public officials are presumed to be open for public inspection. There are some exceptions to this general rule, and we have lawyers on staff who can help officials analyze and fulfill records requests. One task that staff can't perform, however, is finding documents in the homes of supervisors or on their computer hard drives. Knowing that records need to be maintained and that they may well end up on the front page of a newspaper are important take-aways from this training. To help keep documents straight, we encourage supervisors to conduct their business on county-issued laptops and to use official email addresses.         

• Ethics. Local officials aren't typically offered the same kinds of perks that some national officials seem to get. Aside from outright bribes, which are obviously illegal to accept, a host of more subtle situations can cause an official to run afoul of state ethics laws.

In general, it is acceptable for an official to accept a free meal if the local government has rules that would normally require it to reimburse the official for the cost of the meal. In the case of Walworth County, this means a meal while attending an official event outside of the county. The benefit in that case actually would be to the local government and not the official, because taxpayers would end up picking up the cost of the meal if someone else didn't pay. The county doesn't pay for meals in most other settings. If the official wants to eat, in those cases he or she would need to pay the provider for the cost of the food. When local officials are in doubt as to the proper course of action, they can request an ethics opinion, which is what we encourage them to do.

While keeping officials out of legal hot water is the goal of the first three classes, helping them to become more effective board members is the goal of our two remaining classes. These topics include:

• Rules of procedure. In order to represent constituents, supervisors have to know how to get their ideas before their peers for action. This class shows them how to do that (a letter to the board usually gets the ball rolling) and the path that their letter will take as it is referred to committees and ultimately presented to the board in the form of an ordinance or resolution. After years of suffering through meetings that tended to be dominated by those supervisors who mastered or thought they had mastered Robert's Rules of Order, the board adopted its own simplified rules of procedure. Those changes made it less intimidating for all supervisors to participate in the discussion and are covered in the class.

• Committee chair workshop. With 11 standing committees, most of our board members end up serving as the chair of one or more of them. In addition to running an orderly meeting, the chair must also work with staff and department heads to produce monthly agendas. A great deal of the board's work is accomplished by committees. The workshop format allows supervisors and staff to share their experiences of what works and what doesn't to make this time as productive as possible.

In addition to our own in-house training programs, other groups, including the University of Wisconsin Extension and Wisconsin Counties Association, conduct similar training, and we encourage our supervisors to attend. Because the WCA has chosen Stevens Point as the venue for most of its training, however, attending a five-hour class there entails a five-hour car ride. Providing classes locally is sometimes the only option for supervisors who have jobs and other commitments.

As I point out in the first three classes, violating open meetings, records and ethics laws can subject a local official to personal liability. More importantly, the credibility of the organization suffers in the eyes of the public when these violations occur. A little time invested in training can hopefully avoid these consequences.
 
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.
 



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