Issue raised in response to absences of supervisor Bill Freudenberg
BY KEVIN BONESKE
The issue of Oneida County Board supervisor Bill Freudenberg being absent from County Board and committee meetings prompted the county’s Administration Committee on Tuesday to direct county corporation counsel Brian Desmond to revise the meeting attendance rules and procedures for supervisors.
Freudenberg, who represents Wards 7, 11 and 13 in the city of Rhinelander, has been leaving the County Board meetings early, for which another supervisor who represents Wards 3 and 4 in Rhinelander, Tom Kelly, has taken exception with Freudenberg continually leaving those monthly morning meetings when the County Board hasn’t completed voting on all the agenda items.
“It’s not fair to the rest of us (on the County Board),” Kelly said. “It’s not fair to the people who elected him.”
Kelly noted there have been close votes on the 21-member County Board in recent years when Freudenberg left a meeting early and one more vote could have changed the outcome.
At the June 2016 meeting when Freudenberg left early, the County Board deadlocked 10-10 and consequently defeated a motion to change the general code to allow a citizen member to serve on the Conservation and UW-Extension Education Committee.
At a special County Board meeting in July 2015, Freudenberg left early and another supervisor was excused when board voted 10-9 to reject an offer from Kwik Trip to purchase the county Highway Department property at 730 Kemp St. in Rhinelander.
Because of Freudenberg’s ongoing early departures, Kelly said he brought to the attention of County Board chairman Dave Hintz a provision in state law in which Hintz could issue a warrant to require the sheriff to arrest Freudenberg for leaving a board meeting “without good cause or without first being excused by the board” and have him brought back to the meeting.
Kelly said Freudenberg “goes home because he’s tired” when he should instead be staying for the entire County Board meeting for which he is getting paid.
Hintz said he had the opportunity recently to speak with Freudenberg regarding those early exits.
“He did talk about his need to go to work and need to get sleep before he went to work at 11 o’clock in the evening,” Hintz said. “He did say he’d try to do better, that sort of thing.”
Though state statutes include a procedure for a warrant to be presented to the sheriff’s to have an unexcused supervisor brought back to a County Board meeting, along with taking away the supervisor’s per diem and collecting the costs of the action bringing the supervisor back, Desmond said the County Board’s own rules for attendance aren’t very specific.
“If you miss more than three committee meetings, at the request of any supervisor, you can be brought before the County Board – period,” Desmond said. “Okay, brought before the County Board for what?”
Hintz, who has the discretion as the County Board chairman to excuse or not excuse a supervisor’s absence at a meeting, said he wouldn’t want to see a supervisor be arrested for being absent.
“That’s seems pretty dramatic, and if something can be improved with attendance and that sort of thing, we certainly should strive in that direction,” Hintz said.
Desmond, who noted he also discussed Freudenberg’s meeting absences with him, said for fairness and due process, rules should be in place so that all the supervisors know what’s expected of them.
“When they sign up to be a County Board supervisor, I think that’s only fair to know what rule you’re breaking, possibly breaking at the time,” Desmond said. “And our code of conduct really doesn’t address this at all, either – I’ve looked through that.”
Desmond also noted state law contains a provision in which a supervisor could be removed by a two-thirds vote of the County Board “for cause.”
“That’s the only other remedy, and I pointed that out to Bill,” Desmond said. “Here’s the other remedy that someone can seek…. I can’t really tell you what cause would or wouldn’t be until someone tries to bring something for cause.”
Hintz said the repeated absences of Freudenberg have become an issue. He favored having the matter of supervisors’ expectations for attending meetings be further discussed at the next committee meeting and also at the August County Board meeting.
“We’ve got to work through this and make sure everyone understands the rules,” Hintz said.
Freudenberg did not return a phone call or an email message seeking comment.
Two other county supervisors who represent portions of Rhinelander and were reached for comment were also critical of Freudenberg leaving meetings early.
Supervisor Alex Young, who represents Wards 5 and 10 in Rhinelander, publicly criticized Freudenberg on the County Board floor last September after he left the meeting before supervisors voted on a $15 million loan for Expera to expand its operations in the former Printpack building on Kemp Street. Young said Freudenberg’s absence at meetings is frustrating for Rhinelander residents who are represented on the County Board.
“When we’re left one member short out of the handful that we have, that puts the Rhinelander community at a disadvantage,” Young said. “I think that’s unfortunate, and it has resulted in lost votes that could have gone in a different direction.”
Supervisor Sonny Paszak, who represents Wards 1, 2 and 8 in Rhinelander, said it is not fair to the other supervisors who stay for the entire meeting that Freudenberg is getting paid when he continually leaves early.
“I hope something is done about it,” Paszak said.
Barring an excusable absence such as being sick, Paszak said supervisors “should be there for the vote.”