Two people, including a former Blue Mound State Park superintendent, are alleging that state officials violated open meetings laws prior to the controversial decision to allow snowmobiles in the park.
Former superintendent Karl Heil and Blue Mounds resident Kenneth Wade filed a complaint Wednesday with the Dane County District Attorney’s Office. The complaint alleges that Department of Natural Resources staff caused an illegal “walking quorum” by polling board members prior to the Jan. 27 vote, and that board members met illegally to discuss government business during a dinner the night before.
The complaint, which accused the DNR of “full-scale lobbying and polling of each Board member,” stems from a lawsuit filed in February against the board’s decision to amend the Blue Mound State Park master plan to include a 1.4-mile snowmobile route.
Christa Westerberg, an attorney representing Heil and Wade, said she filed an open records request for DNR correspondence because of disagreements with the agency over what should be included in the record for the case. Her complaint includes samples taken from emails of high-ranking DNR officials that were released in the records request.
According to the complaint, DNR Property Planning section chief Diane Bruesoe and Bureau of Parks and Recreation director Benjamin Bergey polled Natural Resources Board members Preston Cole, Terry Hilgenberg and Gary Zimmer between Jan. 14 and Jan. 19 and reported their opinions in a document shared with other staff. The opinions of the board’s four other members were not recorded because they did not request briefings, emails show.
The prospect of reintroducing snowmobiles to the park for the first time since the early 1990s caused a firestorm of criticism from cross country skiers, mountain bikers and other park users who opposed various iterations of the master plan amendment because they included changes to existing trails and abandoned the park’s “silent sports” tradition.
The complaint also alleges that DNR staff tried to head off that opposition by repeatedly offering board members briefings and by meeting with them at a dinner the night before the vote. The complaint cites a Jan. 26 email from DNR Land Division administrator Sanjay Olson outlining a strategy for the dinner:
“We want to re-brief as 215 comments came in, in opposition to the snomo trail. I feel Preston/Terry/Gary understand this — but we want to answer any questions they have — as well and try to get in front of the others not yet briefed. Ben and I will both be attending the dinner tonight to answer questions as well,” the email said.
The complaint alleges the dinner violated the state’s open meetings law because governmental business was discussed and the dinner was neither publicly noticed nor conducted in open session.
In an email statement sent Friday, DNR spokesman Jim Dick said the agency has “always” publicly noticed board dinner meetings when they involve presentations or guests other than DNR staff and board members.
“Otherwise, these dinners are social gatherings,” he said. “This procedure was established in 2008 under the Doyle administration. There have been no violations of the open meetings law.”
The Natural Resources Board’s meeting calendar does not list a meeting for Jan. 26.
Westerberg said the district attorney’s office has 21 days from the filing date to decide whether to investigate the complaint. Otherwise, Heil and Wade are free to file a lawsuit, she said. “When you’re a citizen who goes to testify at one of these hearings, you’re hoping you have a decision-maker who listens to all sides and considers your comments from an objective standpoint. But when the board members have, it appears, been primed to vote in a certain way, it hurts your faith in the process,” Westerberg said.
“It seems to us that it’s an appropriate case for the district attorney to take because it does invoke these broader questions that are of significant public interest: When and how far is appropriate for agency staff to advocate to board members and take a count of the their votes and coordinate even with the board on doing that,” Westerberg said.
Dick said the agency would begin noticing all dinners as part of its normal meeting agendas “in an abundance of caution and desire for clear transparency in all board actions.”