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Wisconsin county’s threat to journalists came from top

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin county’s ridiculed resolution seeking to dictate, under the threat of prosecution, how the media could report on a water study was the brainchild of a neighboring county’s top official, newly released records show.

Ideas for the Lafayette County resolution, which was widely condemned as illegal, came from Iowa County’s board chairman, John Meyers, according to documents obtained by the Wisconsin State Journal under the state’s open records law.

When reached for comment by the newspaper, Meyers denied being the author of the Lafayette County resolution, which was ultimately gutted to remove the provisions targeting journalists. He said there is a difference between making suggestions and writing a resolution, the State Journal reported in a story published Thursday.

Before it was changed, the resolution was widely seen as illegal, unenforceable and unconstitutional.

As for the suggestion to prosecute reporters, “that was just me venting,” Meyers said.

The records show that Meyers sent Grant and Lafayette County officials suggestions for the resolution. As for the media, the recommendation stated that “under no circumstances are they to be allowed to glean information and selectively report it in order to twist results.”

“Maybe make the press sign a cooperation agreement,” Meyers wrote to Lafayette County economic development director Abby Haas and Grant County Board Chairman Bob Keeney. “Threaten to prosecute them for slander.”

His suggestions also called for censuring board members “caught distorting information intentionally.”

Keeney emailed Meyers and Haas on Nov. 1 to say he appreciated Meyers’ resolution language and said, “I agree that we need to be on the same page.”

The Lafayette County Land Conservation Committee approved the modified version of the resolution on Nov. 12. It was then stripped of other controversial provisions and tabled by the full county board later that night. No such resolution was offered in either of the other two counties that are a part of the water study.

Attempts to control the flow of information from the Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology Study, or SWIGG, came after county officials complained that national and state media outlets had reported study findings incorrectly in April. The initial, inaccurate report said that 91% of the entire region’s private wells were contaminated, when in fact that percentage applied to only a small subset of wells that had already been found to be contaminated.

Federal and state researchers have been working on a joint study measuring contamination in private wells in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties, which are in southeastern Wisconsin. The test results have gotten attention because they highlight the potential vulnerability of Wisconsin groundwater from agricultural practices and defective septic systems.

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