Lafayette County Board’s resolution may be unconstitutional

Last week, Lafayette County gained some state and national attention due to a resolution showing up suddenly on the county clerk’s desk on Nov. 7. The resolution accused the media of slandering (illegal speech degrading character) this area of Wisconsin. 

This resolution deals with one of the most controversial topics: the 1st Amendment (Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Press, Freedom of Assembly, Freedom of Petitioning the Government and Freedom of Religion). Not only has our campus dealt with, but our society is dealing with it in county politics.

What has our state explained in its annotated constitution about the Freedom of Press? According to Article I. Sec. 3, “Every person may freely speak, write and publish his sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right, and no laws shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press.” This clause is to inform Wisconsin residents about the Freedom of Speech and, in this instance, Freedom of Press is essentially up to interpretation by anybody accusing you of defamation of character, libel or slander. The judicial process of the defamation of character is a tort (civil) case. One must prove damage to their character, generally a monetary damage. 

Despite the four revisions of county legislation, the beginning preamble and statements do not change the inferred meaning; however, one word stuck out to Kriss Marion the most on the last revised draft: limited. 

Kriss Marion is a County Board Supervisor for Lafayette County. You might have heard her name in the 2018 Wisconsin State Senate race. 

“I think what is important to know is that we shouldn’t blindly trust our representatives to do the right thing—democracy only works when citizens pay attention and when government operates in a transparent matter,” Marion said. 

The resolution named, “55-19; Protocol Procedure for Southwest Wisconsin Water Study Results” clearly states that, in the past, the area “has been falsely slandered by the press due to a county board [member’s] leak of confidential information” about water quality as the beginning preamble states. Following this, “future results will be limited to the Iowa, Grant and Lafayette County Board Chairs. . .” or anyone approved by the Chair or County Conservationists and Land Conservation Committee Chair. This would prevent information from being released to the public until they deemed so. 

Even the members sitting on the committee would not be informed until the release.

“We have a way to present information for the county,” said Sauer. “Not everybody gets to talk about things. Some things shouldn’t be talked about,” County Board Chairman Jack Sauer said. 

Well, Mr. Sauer, water qualities are necessary to healthy human life, and I believe even if there are contaminated wells to the lowest percentage, we citizens have the right to be concerned and relay information. Sauer did not show any concerns about the legality of the resolution. “It already passed legal muster. It was written by an attorney.” He declined to provide the name of the lawyer and asked, “What difference does it make?”  

Marion furthered her point on how the process was actually put forth, “Another thing that is overlooked by the vast majority of people, even leaders, is the incredible importance of Robert’s Rules, or agreed-upon norms for conducting business, making decisions and engaging in civil, organized debate. Some of what happened in the course of the Lafayette County fiasco is basic norms and procedures weren’t followed, and it made it hard for the public, the press and the supervisors themselves to have an open discussion.” 

During this long process, Marion said the resolution revision process was a one-day process with four drafts being implemented.

“Most of the 16 Lafayette County supervisors had no idea what was going on or which version we were voting on at the full board meeting Tuesday night (Nov. 12). So, I moved to table the motion, and that passed. One person voted against tabling and that was because he thought we should have killed the resolution then and there. As it is, we will likely see it come back in some version,” Marion said. 

Have these quotes so far made you wonder about running for office? 

“I think everyone should serve in local office at some point, when their life and schedule allow for it. Serving at the municipal or county level is a great way to get to know your community even better, and you really learn how things work. It was eye-opening for me, and the insurmountable hurdles faced by Wisconsin counties as they try to carry out mandates imposed on them by the state is a big reason I ran for senate. I think it is shortsighted to limit the levy for counties, we’ve caused an extreme lack of infrastructure deterioration because of it. We also aren’t keeping up with the social service demands on counties: the drug and addiction and family services in particular are falling far behind the needs. Counties do so much! And running them well–efficiently and fairly–is essential for the well-being of citizens. I’ll fight for rural WI [Wisconsin] communities to my last breath, and part of the struggle now is to give rural citizens the hope to fight for themselves. Insisting on good government is part of that fight. We’re worth it,” Marion said. 

As the conversation was ending, Marion said this, “The real story behind the Resolution 55-19 saga is a story about democracy. A good story that people standing up for what’s right can make a difference, and can make change. The sub-plot, though, is that when people aren’t paying attention, crazy things can get through. A free press is the primary means by which we are able to pay attention[,] and that[‘]s why freedom of the press is right next to freedom of individual speech as foundational pillars in democracy.”

County Board Supervisors do not identify as Democrat (Left) or Republican (Right). They are non-partisan representatives of a municipality or group of smaller municipalities and are voted for every two years. This is a lasting question I have for our student body.  Can society eventually expel the two-party system at the state and federal level and work as non-partisan?