A Lafayette County resolution that sought to dictate, under threat of prosecution, what media can report about a controversial water-quality study had its origins in the elected leaders of two of the three rural counties where the study is being conducted, records show.
According to emails released through a state public records request, Iowa County Board chairman John Meyers on Oct. 31 sent Grant and Lafayette county officials suggestions for the resolution, including to stress to the media that “under no circumstances are they to be allowed to glean information and selectively report it in order to twist results.”
“Maybe make the press sign a cooperation agreement,” Meyers wrote to Lafayette County economic development director Abby Haas and Grant County Board Chairman Bob Keeney. “Threaten to prosecute them for slander.”
His suggestions also included censuring board members “caught distorting information intentionally.”
The resolution, which surfaced in early November, drew widespread condemnation from open government and First Amendment advocates for likely being illegal, unenforceable and unconstitutional. The Lafayette County Land Conservation Committee approved a modified version of the resolution on Nov. 12 and it was stripped of other controversial provisions and tabled by the full County Board later that night.
The records show that Haas emailed Meyers on Oct. 30 to say “Jack said you were working on a resolution for how the press (is) handled in regards to the Water Study Information,” and asked to get a copy of the document. Jack is Lafayette County Board Chairman Jack Sauer.
Meyers emailed back to say he thought Sauer was working on it, but then laid out his suggestions. Haas said she put those suggestions into a Word document and gave it to the county clerk to mail to Sauer, who does not use email.
Grant County Board Chairman Bob Keeney emailed Meyers and Haas on Nov. 1 to say he appreciated the resolution language Meyers had shared and said, “I agree that we need to be on the same page.”
Attempts to control the flow of information from the Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology Study, or SWIGG, came after county officials complained that national and state media outlets in August had incorrectly reported the study findings. An initial report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did not make clear that wells found to contain contaminants had been previously flagged as tainted. The error was compounded when The Associated Press reported that "the majority of private wells in southwestern Wisconsin" were polluted.
Meyers on Wednesday denied being the author of the Lafayette County resolution.
“There’s a difference between making suggestions and authoring a document,” he said, adding that Lafayette County is “responsible for their own agendas, their own resolutions.”
As for the suggestion to prosecute reporters, “that was just me venting,” he said.
Sauer acknowledged that he had spoken with Meyers about a resolution but didn’t see one until the day before it was taken up by the Land Conservation Committee. He said the corporation counsels for Lafayette and Iowa counties were against taking it to the committee, but others, including Milwaukee attorney Andy Phillips, said it could be salvaged.
Keeney said that aside from email correspondence about the resolution, he had never spoken about its contents with anyone or proposed any of the language it contained. He said it was sent to the Grant County corporation counsel, but elected officials there never took it up.
Haas said the resolution in Lafayette County is “currently basically dead.”
Officials push back
The email records show state and federal officials involved in SWIGG pushed back against parts of the resolution after a toned-down version of it was shared with them on Nov. 12.
State geologist Ken Bradbury said a provision that would limit the release of study test results to Lafayette County “isn’t workable.”
“Because this is a multi-county study, any results we choose to release will be shared simultaneously with all three counties as well as with the press and others as appropriate,” he wrote. “We are public employees and our work is public work. We cannot choose to release some data to some parties and not to others.”
Mark Borchardt, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, went so far as to say Lafayette County would be dropped from the study.
“My lab doesn’t have the time, inclination, or necessity of getting into a battle with Lafayette County,” he wrote. “We can increase the sample number in Iowa and Grant counties and be just fine in meeting the study objectives.”
Borchardt told the State Journal Wednesday that his email had been “meant to convey that the politics surrounding the study were becoming distracting from the research mission and it would be easier to just drop Lafayette County,” especially since the county hadn’t provided any direct funding for the study.
“I now understand Lafayette County recently approved study funding,” he said. “So, no, Lafayette County is not being dropped from the study.”
Results of the study’s most recent testing are further identifying the sources of fecal contamination in the counties’ private wells.
Scientists in mid-August tested 34 wells that had previously been shown to be contaminated and found 25 of them, or 73%, were contaminated with human or livestock manure.
The wells are a subset of 840 wells sampled in November 2018 and April. About 32% of that larger sample showed evidence of bacterial or nitrate pollution. SWIGG researchers have begun testing smaller subsets of those wells to gather more detail about where the contamination is originating.
Citing the earlier mistake in the August media reporting, the counties last week opted to release the most recent results only to local media.
“Seeing that our local news markets have done an excellent job of reporting on the study, we decided to release the story locally and let the AP pick the story up from there,” said Lynda Schweikert, Grant County administrator of conservation, sanitation and zoning.
Bradbury said his office had taken the lead in publicizing prior SWIGG test results but that the counties asked that their soil and water conservation offices be allowed to disseminate the information.
The State Journal has sought assurances from the federal, state and local officials involved in SWIGG that they will release future study results to the newspaper. The next batch of results is expected in late February or early March.
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that the original story on the well study in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was misleading but not incorrect. An earlier version of the story also misstated the month the article ran. The story ran in August.]