Kewaunee County Board Chairman Robert Weidner leads discussion at the board’s Personnel, Advisory and Legislative Committee meeting Wednesday.
By Warren Bluhm
It’s one thing to perceive an elected official has a conflict of interest, but that’s not the same as his actually having a conflict.
That was what a group of Kewaunee County residents learned Wednesday afternoon when their discomfort over Supervisor John Pagel’s committee chairmanship got an airing before the County Board Personnel, Advisory and Legislative Committee.
Pagel chairs the Land and Water Conservation Committee, and in his day job he’s the owner of Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy, the largest concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) in the county and a major employer.
He also was a founding member of the Dairy Business Association, a lobbying group that recently sued the state Department of Natural Resources and asked a judge to declare that the DNR has overstepped its legal authority in regulating CAFOs. He also is president of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Cooperative, which shares an office and staff with the DBA in Green Bay.
Since the lawsuit was filed, County Board Chairman Robert Weidner has received at least 30 emails and letters calling for Pagel’s removal as committee chairman. Pagel said his position gives him the ability to explain to his fellow farmers the need to work for improved water quality and said he has tried to be fair and honest in leading the committee.
‘Fox in the henhouse’
A common theme in the letters and comments was that although Pagel may not have acted improperly, the “appearance of impropriety” is cause for concern.
The personnel committee took a half-hour of public comments before addressing the matter.
Lynn Utesch, a town of Lincoln farmer, pointed out that the DBA has sent letters threatening town of Lincoln and other municipalities for their efforts to protect public health, and the association has lobbied the governor “to undermine the recommendations of Kewaunee County’s Safe Drinking Water Act workgroups, the recommendations that the farmers, manure haulers, members of the Dairy Business Association, agreed to.”
Pagel has “undue influence” as chairman, Utesch said.
“The chairman of the Land and Water Conservation Committee needs to be working for all of us and representing all of us,” Utesch said. “He has a right to be on that committee, but he should not be the chairman.”
Todd Lohenry of Algoma agreed that the appearance of a conflict is a concern, “if only for the reason, you know the old proverb that says, ‘If you let a fox in the henhouse, he’ll have chicken for dinner every night.’ We want to make sure that we’re not giving the appearance to people around us that that’s what’s happening.”
“I’m not here to question or impugn the character of any public official,” added John Rybski of Ahnapee, “but merely to remind us all that there are standards that apply to us all, and if we have not adopted them locally, they come down to us from the state.”
Conduit to farmers
Supervisor Mary Dobbins said water quality was “a dominant theme” in her door-to-door conversations during the 2016 spring election campaign.
“I sit right next to John at County Board, I go to almost all the Land and Water meetings,” Dobbins said. “I haven’t seen improprieties there, but I am concerned about the appearance of impropriety.”
Corporation Counsel Jeff Wisnickey said the appearance of a conflict is not a good enough legal reason to remove an elected official.
“We don’t deal in the appearance of conflict, we don’t deal in abstract or thoughts of conflict, we have to deal in specific instances of conflict,” Wisnicky said. “That is, when an agenda item is on the agenda and there’s action taken on that item, does the person in question have a conflict on that item?”
Supervisor Lee Luft said the Dairy Business Association has worked “at almost every level” to try to stop efforts to pass farm regulations that address serious water quality issues in the county.
“When asked publicly to disavow the actions of that group, he could not do it,” Luft said. “They are working against everything we have tried to do, and as chair of our Land and Water Conservation Committee, I would have expected that he would have disavowed those actions. He did not, and that is why we are here today, and that is why you’re getting an earful from the community.”
Pagel told Weidner, his fellow supervisors, and about two dozen onlookers that he sees himself as a conduit to the agricultural community.
“I believe that I’ve represented my constituents, agriculture, and the environment fairly at all times regardless of my position in the business community, and I believe that I’ve been fair and honest,” Pagel said. “And I believe that regardless — I think it’s a good thing that I’m a successful business person and that one of the highest taxpaying people in the community and one of the largest employers in the community, and — regardless of an organization that I belong to that has filed suit against the DNR has not changed my attitude and/or my passion for the Soil and Water Committee.”
He said he does not sit on the DBA board of directors; he acknowledged that the DBA and the milk marketing board share staff for efficiency’s sake but they are “completely different” organizations.
“As I get put in this position, I look at myself to see if I’ve done something that I believe was incorrect, in everything and the decisions that I’ve made or the agendas I’ve been, items I’ve been asked to put on, and so on and so forth, and when we have our committee votes on everything that we talk about at Soil and Water Committee, I believe, but I could be wrong because I’ve done it now for four years, I believe that they’ve always been a unanimous vote,” Pagel said. “And although Mr. Luft and I don’t always agree on everything about soil and water, we’ve always come to a solution that we vote on and we vote on together and we agree.”
Pagel argued that his lifetime in the dairy industry makes him “a strong conduit to the dairy industry” as an elected official working with the county Land and Water Conservation Department, state and federal authorities.
“When you talk to anybody from Soil and Water Department, the farmers are working in a direction that’s going to improve water quality in our community, and I believe that I am a strong part of that because of my conduit to the farmers and what the importance is to water quality in the community,” he said. “So as much as I understand a lot of what the requests are, I believe that I have always acted on behalf of the community and what’s important as far as our committee, Soil and Water Department.
‘It should not be personal’
Weidner said it’s legitimate for citizens to petition the government and the residents have a right to a fair airing of their concerns.
“This is the most uncomfortable meeting I’ve ever been at, where we have, let’s say, 30 people who disagree with an appointment,” he said. “That should have an airing, but it should not be personal and it should be limited to the factual basis for what you’re presenting.”
The board chairman said his appointment philosophy in part depends on putting people of opposing viewpoints on the same committees to ensure a healthy debate where all sides are heard.
“It seems today there’s a lot, and this is throughout our national government and below, there’s a lot of effort to denigrate individuals and to destroy individuals and to eliminate the opposite point of view in the discussion, and make it hard for governments to function by creating animosity among the crew,” Weidner said. “I have never seen animosity in the Land and Water Committee.”
And, after it appeared everyone had had their say, the chairman said, “Well, the inquisition is closed. We move on to the next agenda item.”
CORRECTION: The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Cooperative shares an office and staff with the Dairy Business Association in Green Bay but is not part of the DBA, as originally stated in this story.