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St. Croix board not ready for prime-time phone voting

HUDSON — For key votes, should members of the St. Croix County Board be permitted to cast votes over the phone if they aren't present at the board's monthly meeting?

That issue was debated Tuesday night, March 7, during the board's meeting. The problem arises when a so-called super-majority vote is needed from the board.

Fifteen of the board's 19 members must vote in favor of such resolutions and there have been occasions where too many are absent from a given meeting in order to get 15 favorable votes. This scenario played out in February, for example, when a super-majority wasn't present to adopt a resolution to allow the board to seek a $4.9 million loan for capital improvement projects.

At this week's meeting, a lengthy discussion centered around whether supervisors should be able to call in to vote on those important matters. An amendment was proposed to the board's bylaws that would permit such voting to take place over the phone, again only for those votes where a super-majority is required.

Supervisor Roy Sjoberg outlined the proposed changes to the bylaw.

"It's going to be a rare occasion when this occurs," Sjoberg said. "It's going to be perhaps a way to have votes taken when someone's family circumstances cause you to be away."

It quickly became clear that supervisors had strong opinions.

"What if five or six of us all skipped a meeting?" Tom Coulter said. "I have to not think this is very workable.

"Unless they come up with some whizbang facility and maybe software guys are working on this right now and incorporate that into our thing."

Supervisor David Peterson agreed.

"I guess I'm old fashioned," he said. "If you take this job and go out and get elected, you ought to be here.

"I realize there are circumstances where you can't be. But to turn it loose on social media. I've watched enough of these electronic things...and observed what a total disaster it is."

Supervisor Laurie Bergren saw it differently.

"My understanding is, we are in the 21st century right now and it's not that hard (to call in to vote)," she said. "I have participated in a million call-in things like this over my career.

"We are acting like a bunch of people who live in a cave. Really. I'm ashamed of you all."

Bergren asked John Allegro, the county's information technology director, about using a phone in a situation like this.

"Telephone would work fine," Allegro said. "The problem is, if we move to Skype, like an electronic meeting type thing, we can't control what happens on the other side.

"I have no control over the internet connection that Tom might have in his hotel in Baraboo."

Bergren then stated she never intended for Skype to be part of the discussion.

"Just to clarify, I have been a proponent of this since the disastrous vote when we tried to do the bond issue back in December, November, whenever it was," Bergren said. "I have never proposed that we have some complicated thing like Skype.

"The telephone works fine for all kinds of things like this. It's not complicated, contrary to popular opinion in this room. There have been telephones for well over a century. Today they work great."

The amendment was eventually voted down by a 12-5 vote.

Health center

Also at Tuesday's meeting, supervisors received an update on the St. Croix County Health Center project in New Richmond.

Phase I of the project is complete. Phase II is in progress.

Phase I of the project — the skilled nursing bed phase of the project — has 47 of the 50 beds now full. The rest of the work should be done this summer. A 10-bed memory care unit is complete, too, and has been licensed.

Notes

• The quote of the night belonged to County Administrator Patrick Thompson during a brief summary of his department's annual report. When referencing the Capital Improvement Plan, he said: "If we don't get the CIP approved, you're going to need CPR."

• Natasha Cardinal was appointed to the county's traffic safety commission. She is the county's new emergency management manager, replacing Kristen Sailer.

• The board approved a $4.9 million application for a State Trust Fund Loan. The money will cover projects in 2017 and 2018. The loan will have a five-year term at 3 percent interest. About 40 projects will be funded with the loan. There wasn't unanimous approval among supervisors on the resolution. Three supervisors voted against it — Tom Coulter, Ryan Sicard and Andy Brinkman.

"It looks to me like we redecorated the Christmas tree," Coulter said. He said that county is spending more money than the current economy can support.

Other supervisors spoke up in favor of the matter. Some of the upgrades would make staff more efficient, supervisor Scott Nelson said.

"You can save the county a lot of money instead of using old equipment," Nelson said. "You can throw all these numbers out there. Guess what? You have to pay a little bit to make sure your facilities are taken care of."

• Supervisor Bob Long was not present at the meeting. Two supervisors, Ron Kiesler and Laurie Bergren, left before the meeting was adjourned.

• The board's next meeting is 4 p.m. Tuesday, April 4, at the county government center in Hudson. The earlier start time was agreed to by the board because of elections that day.

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