The Lafayette County Board will vote Tuesday on a resolution that would bar board members from speaking to reporters about water quality test results and keep board members in the dark on those test results, promising retribution for violations.
Claiming that past reporting "falsely slandered" the area, the resolution limits future test results to Iowa, Grant and Lafayette board chairs and select other county officials.
The resolution, which goes before the county Land Conservation Committee Tuesday morning and before the board Tuesday evening, is apparently a reaction to reporting on test results that showed a problematic rate of bacterial well contamination in Lafayette, Grant and Iowa counties.
The testing was done by the Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology study (SWIGG), a joint effort involving the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, the U.S. Agricultural Research Service, the UW Extension and others.
The resolution has raised issues of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the ability of county board members to speak to their constituency.
Citing “a county board leak of confidential information,” the resolution would allow the County Board chair, the County Conservationists and the Land Conservation Committee chair to withhold test result information from board members, and from the public.
Board members, the resolution states, “will only be informed when the public is informed.”
The resolution goes on to restrict reporters, dictating that press releases crafted by a review board would be topped with the statement: “Please do not alter, edit, cut or adjust this press release in anyway. Please print the content provided in full. Under no circumstances is the media allowed to glean information and selectively report it in order to interpret the results for their own means. Violators will be prosecuted.”
The resolution, which is not available on the county website, was posted on Facebook by Lafayette County Supervisor Kriss Marion, a member of the Land Conservation Committee, which, according to the resolution, submitted it.
Marion said the resolution was not voted on in committee. She said she doesn't know who the author is.
“I have a hard time believing that anybody thinks this would hold legal water,” she said. “In my opinion, this is a threat to county supervisors who want to talk about SWIGG, it’s a threat to county employees.”
Jack Sauer, chair of the Lafayette County Board, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Dan Bahr, government affairs associate with the Wisconsin Counties Association said only, “If a particular supervisor would like to introduce something related to the release of information, they either ought to contact their corporation counsel, or we could help them with legal advice as well.”
Marion said the resolution is a head-scratcher on several levels. For one thing, the study enjoys wide support in the county, including from the largest farm group in the county, the Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance, which paid for half the original study.
Also, she said, the test results were available from multiple sources, including on the websites of the participant agencies.
Marion said she suspects the resolution is a reaction to local newspaper reporting that said that misinterpreted the final round of test results, reporting that 91% of the county’s wells were contaminated, while in reality 91% of wells previously found contaminated remained so.