Planning Department skirted spirit of transparency in government

Jim Baumgart  Sheboygan County Supervisor

It was a couple of weeks ago when the telephone range at my house. It was Aaron Brault, Director of Sheboygan County’s Planning and Conservation Department. He wanted to make me aware that staff changes had recently taken place, two longtime staff had been laid off and work responsibilities were being modified to meet the needs of the office. As a member of the Planning, Resources, Agriculture and Extension (PRAE) Committee with oversight responsibilities, I was stunned by the surprise announcement. Other committee members were informed of the staff changes within a few days of each other

The PRAE Committee is made up of five elected county board supervisors: Michael Ogea (Chairperson), Keith Ablers (Vice Chairperson), James Baumgart, Al Bosman and Fran Damp. The committee normally meets twice a month as part of their oversight responsibilities.

About a week later, at a regular PRAE Committee meeting, Brault brought out a recommended plan to add two new staff and listing adjusted responsibilities and requested Committee approval. If approved by our committee, the proposal would go on to the County Human Resources Committee for additional approval before going on the whole Sheboygan County Board.

As this column is written (March 10 to 16), I would like to remind the readers in the United States it is called “Sunshine Week”, a week were people are encouraged to stress open and good government. In this case, even if the final results turn out acceptable, I would suggest the process that took place did not come close to meeting the “Sunshine Week” principle

Most committee members were surprised by the action (I use the term “blindsided”), the process was nearly in secret, and the new staffing recommendations raised addition concerns. While it is true that county committees should not mini-manage a county department and their personnel, that responsibility belongs to the Director, in this case Aaron Brault. But the committees do have oversight duty to ensure that departments are meeting their goals and responsibilities.

At the meeting I made a motion to postpone the staffing change, have the committee meet to do a personnel review of Director Brault to discuss the direction and needs of his department before voting on the staffing changes. After some long and interesting discussion, the committee voted 4 to 1 to move the staff changes forward against my recommendation.

Because of the extended questioning that took place, more information was provided the committee by Director Brault. He indicated his staff was getting too far behind in their work - something the committee was not aware of earlier as well as other information. One committee member even went so far as to support the secret personnel change approach saying that was how private businesses proceed in replacement of staff; that committee member had to be reminded that private companies use a variety of methods of improving staffing needs and that government has a responsibility to stress as much openness to the public as possible.

Why discuss the committee’s “dirty laundry”? Because it is an outstanding committee with a Planning and Conservation Department that has often gone above and beyond the call of duty for the citizens of Sheboygan County - be it the recent Sheboygan River clean-up, Non Motorized $25 million pilot project, or its countless other responsibilities it does day in and day out. But if one is willing to point to the positive, they also need to remember when there is a major negative, such as secrecy and personnel surprises that does meet the goals of good and open government that also needs to be discussed - even written about it during “Sunshine Week”.

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