By Brandi Makuski
By a vote of 5-3, the Stevens Point School Board on Monday voted to consider the creation of a new sub-committee, referred to under state law as a “sub-unit,” to avoid a potential conflict of interest liability some on the board say Board Member Lisa Totten has when it negotiates with employee unions.
The sub-unit, which would be comprised of a combination of remaining board members Kim Shirek, Jeff Ebel, Chris Scott, Meg Erler, Trish Baker, newly-elected members Sam Levin and Judy Rannow, and a yet-to-be-determined board appointee of former member Alex Kochanowski’s seat, will be up for discussion on the April 27 agenda.
Totten’s husband is a public school teacher in the district. Despite her regular recusals from discussion and votes relating to district employees, Totten has been under fire from other board members for her refusal to leave the room during those meetings.
While some on the board have railed against Totten’s practice of recusal without removal since she was elected in 2010, the board last week considered several legal options related to Totten’s continued presence during the closed-session discussions.
Totten remained largely silent during the discussion, but last week insisted she had a legal right to remain present for discussions from which she had recused herself.
“There’s no way on this planet I’m going to be able to change your minds, and vice versa,” Totten said last week. “So, we can continue this conversation or we can accept the information that was given by the attorney.”
According to the district’s lawyer, Mike Julka of Madison-based Boardman & Clark, Totten was legally permitted to remain for the closed-session talks, but remaining in the room after recusal could put the district at risk.
The 12-page legal opinion from Julka concluded that Totten’s continued presence was a double-edged sword. State law allowed Totten to remain in closed-session meetings, he wrote, but she would be subjecting herself and the district to possible legal scrutiny and potentially put all union employee contracts at risk.
Board Member Meg Erler said the attorney’s opinion, in her mind, clearly puts Totten in the wrong.
“The potential liability that attaches to the individual as well as other board members, as well as the board, as well as potential lawsuit against the district,” Erler said. “If we’re in closed session, I believe that I should be recusing myself from the vote and from the room. I believe participation occurs otherwise; it has a chilling effect on my ability to participate as a board member when I know a board member has admitted they have a conflict under that statute. The best course of action for Ms. Totten is to remove herself from the room.”
Board Member Jeff Presley said he believed the complaints were nothing more than a personal attack on Totten.