/ Articles / St. Germain pares down referenda questions for April elections

St. Germain pares down referenda questions for April elections

January 28, 2020 by Fred Williston

The St. Germain Town Board decided at a special meeting last Wednesday to pose only two referenda questions to voters on the election ballot this April. Each referendum question must be registered with the Vilas County clerk a minimum of 70 days prior to an election, and last Thursday, St. Germain filed only two of four questions the board had considered.

The two questions posed to the voters on election day will be whether or not to change the office of town clerk from an elected position to an appointed one and whether or not to do the same with the office of town treasurer.  

Second Amendment

At its regular meeting on Jan. 13, the board considered adopting a resolution introduced by town supervisor Brian Cooper to make the town a Second Amendment sanctuary. 

If adopted, the document would have been titular only; essentially a statement from the town board asking Vilas County sheriff Joe Fath not to enforce any potential new gun laws (either federal or state) which the sheriff deems unconstitutional.

The Jan. 13 meeting was packed with community members, many of whom urged the board not to take action on its own but rather take a survey of townspeople or let them vote on the issue directly. 

At that time, the board opted to pose the question as a referendum on the April ballot.

At last Wednesday’s meeting, Cooper informed the board the Second Amendment issue would be taken up by the Vilas County Board on Jan. 28. If the county were to adopt a similar resolution, it would supersede any potential action taken by the town of St. Germain.

“I think we should hold off until we see what they do because if they pass their resolution, it’s going to cover all the towns in this county,” Cooper said. He then made a motion to not include the question on the April ballot.

“That doesn’t mean it can’t be on a later ballot,” town chairman Tom Christensen said, anticipating if the county were not to adopt its resolution, the town could re-visit the issue.

Cooper’s motion to not include the referendum question passed by a vote of four-to-one, with supervisor Ted Ritter as the lone “nay.”

“At the previous meeting, we made a decision to put it on the ballot,” Ritter told The Lakeland Times. “And we have subsequently rescinded that decision for — in my opinion — no good reason. I understand that the county picking this up is an important step and, yes, it will be interesting to see what they do with it. But that shouldn’t preclude our going ahead and asking the people of St. Germain ‘How do you feel about this?’”

He noted “a lot of people showed up” at the Jan. 13 meeting and there had been “a lot of communications” received. 

“So, this is clearly an issue that we’d struck a chord with,” Ritter said. “And I always appreciate when the community shows up ... but we’ve heard it said that ‘you really need to hear from the other electors besides the ones that are here’ and there’s an easy, simple, timely way to do that: with the upcoming election. And we said ‘Yes: good idea. We’ll put it on the ballot.’ And now we’ve decided not to, and I’m uncomfortable with that.”

Cooper sees the county as a better-fitting venue for the issue.  

“The county has bigger shoulders to deal with this than we do,” he told The Lakeland Times. “It was a goal in the back of my head to have the county take up the issue anyways, and that’s what they’re doing ... The place for that resolution is better in front of a county’s board than a town’s ... It’s not that I’m giving up on the resolution; it’s just taking its next step in evolution.”

Fair maps redistricting

The board had also considered a referendum question regarding non-partisan re-drawing of congressional voting district maps.

In all but eight U.S. states, the responsibility of drawing voting district maps falls to state legislatures. 

Maps are re-drawn roughly every 10 years following the official U.S. census. Often, when legislatures are dominated by one political party or the other, maps are re-drawn in a way that gives significant advantage to the party in power, a process known as “gerrymandering.”

A template resolution was provided to Ritter by a group called the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which Ritter copied-and-pasted to fit the format of a St. Germain town document. Ritter did not make major revisions to the resolution due to the time constraints of filing with the Vilas County clerk before the referendum cut-off date.

During the board’s discussion, Cooper noted several issues with statements made by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign in its template document. 

His concerns included inconsistencies over how much gerrymandering actually costs taxpayers; statements implying gerrymandering is currently being practiced in Wisconsin (without citing examples) and references to findings made by a panel of federal judges (which the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled had no authority to issue such findings).

“It just sounds kind of hinky to me,” Cooper said. “I would suggest that we just don’t have it on the ballot.”

“I agree with what Brian has said,” Christensen said. “I believe a lot of the things said are assumptions and not actual facts. Again, I think this is something better off coming from the county; not so much from the town.”

The board voted unanimously not to include the redistricting question on the April ballot.

In other business

• At the electors’ meeting in late April, the board will move to take over ownership and management responsibilities of the St. Germain Cemetery.

The cemetery was founded in the early 1960s, and as members of the St. Germain Cemetery Association Board have either resigned or passed away, recruitment of replacement members has become increasingly difficult. Ultimately, the association voted to disband in May of this year and request the town take over the organization’s assets and duties.

In Wisconsin, if cemeteries go without ownership or care-taking for more than two years, a judge may compel a town to take over. Ritter pointed out to the town board it may behoove St. Germain to take possession in the immediate future rather than to wait for potential disrepair and neglect to exacerbate problems the town could be forced to inherit in the future.

“We made a commitment last night and I’m happy we made that commitment,” Ritter later told The Lakeland Times regarding the board’s resolution to take the matter to an electors’ vote.

In the meantime, Ritter will confer with the town’s attorney as to how a transfer might be made orderly.  

“Now we need to understand the decisions that we need to make,” he said. “Before the April 21 electors’ meeting, we need to do some outreach to the electors to explain what this resolution really means. At that meeting, they’re likely to ask us a lot of questions, and we had better be ready to answer them. And the only way we’re going to get there is to keep slugging our way through this.”

• The board also voted unanimously to purchase a new patrol truck for the Department of Public Works, which will be used primarily for snow plowing and spreading of salt and sand in the winter. 

It can also be used in non-winter months for hauling or excavation and construction projects.

The unit will be constructed by Western Star Trucks and have plowing accessories added by Monroe Truck Equipment. In total, it will cost the town approximately $215,000.

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