If you’re a current subscriber, log in below. If you would like to subscribe, please click the subscribe tab above.
Username and Password Help
By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — If a particular topic was the subject of a public hearing, you will no longer be able to speak about that topic during the public comments section of Dunn County Board meetings or committee meetings.
The Dunn County Board approved, on a second reading, an ordinance pertaining to public comments at the October 16 meeting.
The county board includes a “public comments” agenda item for each of the board’s monthly meetings.
Committees can also include public comments on their meeting agendas.
During the public comments portion of the county board meetings, people will sometimes invite county board members to an event going on in the county or will encourage the county board to support an agenda item, such as the resolution for Indigenous Peoples Day or bringing the Alice in Dairyland finals to Dunn County, or will use the time to make county board members aware of a problem, such as farm field irrigators spraying out over a county road.
But sometimes people will use the public comments portion of the meeting to speak “for” or “against” an agenda item for which a public hearing has already been held and the public hearing has been closed — and for which the county board now has a recommendation in front of them for consideration — such as a request for a zoning change.
And therein lies the problem.
During public hearings, which are subject to public notice requirements, people are sworn in before they give their testimony.
The public hearing participants are under oath when they testify and when they submit exhibits.
The committee holding the public hearing is acting in a quasi-judicial capacity.
When the committee closes the public hearing, no more comments can be made about the topic at hand.
If people speak during the public comments portion of the Dunn County Board meeting, or at a committee meeting, about something that was the topic of a public hearing, they are presenting additional testimony outside of the public hearing, said Nick Lange, Dunn County Corporation Counsel.
Public hearings — and comments about public hearing topics at county board meetings — are most often related to a rezone, he said.
The public hearings are like a “mini trial.” Town boards have an interest. Neighbors have an interest. The committee, which would be the Planning, Resources and Development Committee in the case of a rezone, decides on a recommendation that is at least partially based on the testimony, Lange said.
The ordinance about the public comments is not addressed to the speaker but to the public hearing, he said.
“Their opportunity to speak is at the public hearing,” Lange said.
The ordinance is not about denying public input, but instead, is about respecting state law and testimony in public hearings, said Paul Miller, county manager.
If people cannot attend a public hearing, they can always contact their county board supervisor, and the county board supervisor can make a motion that the public hearing should be reopened, he said.
“It’s not ‘no, you can’t speak.’ It’s about the conditions under which you can speak, and you can speak at a public hearing,” Miller said.
“We will have to increase our responsibility of letting people know how the public hearing process works and how to make their voices heard,” said Tom Quinn, county board supervisor from Downing and chair of the PR&D committee.
“It’s an issue of fairness,” said Jim Zons, county board supervisor from Colfax.
Several county board supervisors noted if two people spoke in favor at a public hearing and two people spoke against, and then the people who spoke in favor attended the county board meeting and spoke in favor again during the public comments portion of the meeting, but the people who spoke against the matter at the public hearing did not know the people in favor of the topic would be speaking at the county board meeting, then those who were not in favor would not have additional time to present additional testimony in the way that the people who spoke in favor could supply additional testimony.
Zons also wondered how the matter would be regulated at the county board meetings.
Under parliamentary procedure, the county board chair has the responsibility to call certain comments “out of order” or a county board member can make “a point of order,” Lange said.
David Bartlett, county board supervisor from Boyceville and chair of the Dunn County Board, said he would work on a statement he could make prior to the public comments portion of the meeting.
“Does anybody wish to address the board on a subject that is NOT a subject of a public hearing,” Miller suggested.
Gary Stene, county board supervisor from Colfax, offered an amendment to allow candidates for public office to make a brief statement during public comments to give their names and introduce themselves and the office for which they are seeking election.
The original version of the ordinance eliminated political campaigning all together from public comments.
Carl Vandermeulen, county board supervisor from Menomonie, said it is important to have people run for public office and believed it would be acceptable for candidates to introduce themselves to the county board.
The Dunn County Board unanimously approved the amendment allowing candidates to introduce themselves.
Diane Morehouse, county board supervisor from Menomonie, offered an amendment to remove “including for amendments of the county zoning ordinance.”
Morehouse said she questioned why zoning should be singled out in the ordinance.
The section Morehouse referred to read, “Public comment will not be permitted on proposed actions for which a public hearing has previously been held, including for amendments of the county zoning ordinance, or for political campaigning.”
The Dunn County Board approved the amendment removing the reference to county zoning on a voice vote.
The Dunn County Board then approved the amended ordinance pertaining to non-board members addressing the county board or the committee on a voice vote.