Fifty Three to Fifty Six: Underheim and CUT

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Underheim and CUT

A citizen group attempting to turn in more than 5,000 signatures to force an April referendum to reduce the size of the Winnebago County Board was not permitted to turn the petitions in Monday afternoon.

Winnebago County Clerk Sue Ertmer ordered her staff not to accept the petitions from Citizens United to Transform the Winnebago County Board (CUT) Committee because the board voted in late September to reduce its membership from 38 to 36 supervisors.

Ertmer said in a letter the petitions would not be accepted on the advice of Winnebago County Corporation Counsel John Bodnar and the State Elections Board.

State Rep. Gregg Underheim, R-Oshkosh, was with the CUT Committee when the petitions were denied at the clerk's office, said the county violated the group's First Amendment right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

"Winnebago County is denying these citizens one of their five fundamental rights," said Underheim, who authored the bill allowing citizens or boards to reduce the board's size once each decade between census counts. "This is becoming a much bigger issue than the size of the County Board."

CUT Committee Campaign Manager Jeremy Monnett said the group was not asking the clerk's office to verify the signatures Monday, but merely to stamp them received and give the group a receipt.

"It's a little upsetting and completely disappointing that our government won't accept this petition," Monnett said. "This is unconscionable."

The petition seeks a referendum to cut the county board from 38 to 19 supervisors. Though the board voted to reduce their number from 38 to 36 earlier this fall, the committee is hoping a memo from the state Legislative Council will give them legal grounds for stopping the board's actions and moving the referendum forward.

Ertmer was not present when CUT members first arrived to present their petition. Later, she met with committee members, reiterating that she could not accept the petitions on the advice of counsel.

County Executive Mark Harris met with CUT members, but said he could not overrule Ertmer's decision because she is an elected officer of the county. Harris did agree to serve as a witness that the group attempted to submit the 532 pages of signatures.

Monnett said the group is weighing its legal options.

The State Legislative Council memo says that if a board has voted to change size but has not yet voted on a redistricting plan, the board must hold off on any action to implement a size change until a petition is reviewed or while the referendum is pending.

"If a county board has adopted a resolution to reduce the number of county board supervisors but has yet to enact the revised supervisory district plan to implement the reduction, it appears the board may not enact the plan following the filing of a petition to reduce county board size," according to the memo written by Don Dyke, chief of legal services for the council

The board in late September passed a resolution 22-13 to reduce its size by two members in an effort to stave off the efforts of the CUT committee to cut the board in half.

At the time, the understanding was that the board's move derailed the petition drive and that was cited Monday in the letter from Ertmer to the CUT Committee.

Bethany K. Warner: (920) 426-6668 or Jeff Bollier contributed to this report.

From the Oshkosh Northwestern



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