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Town of Howard: Dunn County residents talk too much; town board considers limiting public comment

By LeAnn R. Ralph

TOWN OF HOWARD  —  Residents of Dunn County are talking too much and are asking too many questions at Howard Town Board meetings.

That was the message brought by Todd Wanish, Howard Town Board supervisor, to the September 1 meeting.

Wanish said that several Howard residents had talked to him about not allowing Dunn County residents to speak and ask questions at Howard Town Board meetings.

The prevailing sentiment, Wanish said, is why should residents from a different township and a different county be allowed to speak at “our” meetings?

At issue is the proposed 1,300-acre Albertville Valley Sand Mine in the Town of Howard and the impact the mine could have on residents who would be living across the road from the mining operations — in the Town of Colfax in Dunn County.

The Albertville Valley Sand Mine would be located a few miles southeast of Colfax.

The Howard Town Board has the authority to negotiate a mining agreement that would protect non-participating residents in Howard.

The Colfax Town Board and the Dunn County Board have no authority to negotiate agreements to protect Dunn County residents from the impact of a mine in Chippewa County.

Vernon Schindler, chair of the Town of Howard, has been allowing Town of Colfax residents and Dunn County residents to ask questions and to make comments at town board meetings.

Wanish said he had contacted the Wisconsin Towns’ Association and had been told that Schindler could limit comments to Town of Howard residents or landowners.

Schindler and Dennis Dvoracek, supervisor No. 2 on the Howard Town Board, were not in favor of the idea.

“It would be against the law not to let them talk at all,” Schindler said.

The town chair could limit the number of minutes that people speak, “but we do not want to alienate our neighbors. What happens in Howard is affecting them,” Dvoracek said.

“To completely cut them off would not be right. They are our neighbors,” he said.

Wanish said that allowing people to make public comments who are not residents of Howard makes the meetings run longer.

“The meetings get drug out more and more,” he said.

Five minutes

Schindler said he might be open to limiting public comment to five minutes per person, no matter where the speakers are from.

Howard Town Board meetings begin at 8 p.m. and are often adjourned by 9:30 p.m. if not sooner.

Meetings nowadays are far shorter than when the Schindler and Sikora mine was being proposed, Dvoracek said.

When the first sand mine was proposed in Howard, the town hall was often filled to overflowing, with people standing outside of the building.

Current town board meetings may draw around 40 people — with space left over in the town hall.

One Howard resident in the audience wondered what other townships do.

Mark Halpin, a trustee on the Colfax Village Board, noted that the Howard Town Board meetings are open meetings and that officials serve on boards to serve the public.

Halpin asked if Wanish had another obligation following the town board meeting that would require Wanish to leave at a certain time, but Wanish said he did not.

Halpin has been attending the Howard Town Board meetings because the Albertville Valley Sand Mine would have an impact on the village of Colfax if train cars or trucks carrying sand travel through the village.

Ron Koshoshek, Howard’s consultant on mining issues, also noted that the board meetings are open meetings and that the public should be allowed to speak.

Schindler and Koshoshek both wondered if the Howard Town Board limited public comments to five minutes, would Howard residents be willing to keep their comments within the timeframe.

Why be rude?

“Why would you want to be rude to (people from) another county?” wondered Susan LaNou, a Town of Howard resident.

The people on the Dunn County side are concerned because their property is next to the mining area, she said.

“I think it’s ridiculous that it’s even brought up,” LaNou said.

“People in the township are concerned about it,” Wanish said.

One man in the audience said that comments “got out of hand” at the last Howard Town  Board meeting in August.

The August meeting was held only a few days after the Chippewa County land conservation public hearing on the proposed mine reclamation plan for the Albertville Valley Sand Mine.

Representatives for the Red Flint Group, the company that will be operating the mine, attended the August meeting.

A number of people in the audience had comments and questions for Red Flint and the Howard Town Board at the August meeting.

Schindler tends to run an informal meeting and allows audience members to comment during the meeting rather than limiting public comment to a specific period at the beginning or the end of the meeting.

Some agendas for governmental meetings specify that comments be limited to five minutes on topics that are specifically listed on the agenda.

3 to 5 minutes

Debra Wallsch, treasurer for the Town of Howard, pointed out that the Cooks Valley Town Board limits public comments to three minutes for each person and that the time limit is always stated on the agenda.

Town of Howard resident Ken Schmitt pointed out that the town board could limit public comments to a particular time at the beginning of the meeting and could limit each speaker to a specific amount of time.

Three minutes is a little short, Schmitt said, noting that a person can read a single page of double-spaced comments in about three minutes.

Town of Howard resident Jerry Eder wondered how it would be handled if audience members used up their allotted time but then had with more questions later on.

Would people be prevented from asking additional questions or being able to talk about their concerns? Eder asked.

A motion to limit public comment to three minutes per person per meeting died for the lack of a second.

A motion to limit public comments to five minutes per person per meeting also died for the lack of a second.

Several people in the audience suggested that the town board should research the issue and find out how other municipalities limit time for public comments.

Schindler said the issue of limiting public comment would be on the agenda for the October meeting.

One man in the audience said that limiting speech was not a good way to encourage people to participate in local government and come to town board meetings.

“I have a problem with that,” he said.