County’s lawyer barred from approving wording in Jan. 18 meeting agenda, leads to illegal meeting, complaint alleges
By Brandi Makuski
The Portage Co. Finance Committee meet illegally on Jan. 18, according to Corporation Counsel Mike McKenna.
McKenna alleges the committee violated the state’s open meeting law on Jan. 18. In his complaint, which was filed with the Portage Co. District Attorney’s Office on Feb. 5, McKenna accused the committee of entering into closed session without a properly-worded public notice. The phrasing on the meeting agenda was too vague for the public to reasonably understand the reasons for going into closed session — a requirement under state law — and did not disclose what was actually being discussed at the meeting, according to the complaint.
The complaint also states the agenda did not disclose the committee would hire the law firm, which it ultimately did for a cost of $15,000, or mention the county treasurer’s office or the “dozens of county departments it purports to be looking at” during the investigation, McKenna said.
The agenda for the Jan. 18 meeting read, in part:
The Committee will consider a motion to convene in closed session pursuant to Wis. Stat. sec. 19.85(1)(c) “[c]onsidering employment, promotion, compensation or performance evaluation data of any public employee over which the governmental body has jurisdiction or exercises responsibility,” sec. 19.85(1)(e) “[d]eliberating or negotiating the purchasing of public properties, the investing of public funds, or conducting other specified public business, whenever competitive or bargaining reasons require a closed session,” and sec. 19.85(1)(f) “[c]onsidering financial, medical, social or personal histories or disciplinary data of specific persons, preliminary consideration of specific personnel problems or the investigation of charges against specific persons except where par. (b) applies which, if discussed in public, would be likely to have a substantial adverse effect upon the reputation of any person referred to in such histories or data, or involved in such problems or investigations,” to wit: to consider authorizing certain action surrounding a confidential and sensitive matter involving the county, county official(s) and the county’s interests. The Committee will reconvene in open session immediately following the closed session and take action, if necessary, on any matter discussed in closed session.
McKenna also said his office was barred from approving the wording on the Jan. 18 agenda — something he said he doesn’t remember ever occurring before in his 17 years in county government.
“It was ordered to us that we were to have nothing to do with that,” McKenna said.
According to Portage Co. Board Chairman Phil Idsvoog, the committee on that day voted to approve hiring Milwaukee-based lawfirm von Briesen & Roper to review procedures within the county treasurer’s office.
“The discussion took place in closed-session, but the action they took, the vote, took place in open-session,” Idsvoog said. “Any more than that, I can’t tell you.”
An investigation into County Treasurer Stephanie Stokes’ office began in Sept. of 2015 following the release of a routine audit of the office by an independent third-party accounting firm. At that time, McKenna told the City Times the case was referred to the Stevens Point Police Dept. to determine what, if any, crime had taken place.
Police have declined to comment on what, if anything, they uncovered during their investigation, but the case was later referred back to the Portage Co. District Attorney’s office for review. District Attorney Louis Molepske said to avoid a conflict of interest, any investigation would be conducted by independent parties.
Last October, McKenna declined to say whether Stokes, or her recently-departed longtime deputy treasurer, Amy Townsend, was a focus of any investigation, saying instead the entire office and its operations were being looked at.
Townsend, who resigned Sept. 3, had been appointed to her office in 2001, though it’s not clear if her departure is related to the investigation. When asked by a City Times reporter if Townsend’s resignation was designed to make her appear to be at fault for deficiencies inside the office detailed in the 2013 audit, Idsvoog told the reporter, “Gosh, you’re smart.”
County Treasurer Stephanie Stokes said she had no comment on the audit or investigation, which is ongoing. Also firmly in the “no comment” category is Jim Gifford, chair of the finance committee.
“I’m sorry, I can’t say anything about what we did in closed session,” was all Gifford would say.
According to Molepske, if it’s proven the committee acted illegally, whichever prosecutor takes the case can file a motion to void any action taken during the meeting. He did not immediately know how long the investigation might take, saying he’s asked outside prosecutors to take the case, but said “it also depends how many people need to be interviewed by law enforcement”.
Molepske’s office has 20 days to address the matter, whether through an independent prosecutor or directly through his office. until Feb. 24 to address the issue.
“You have to have a literal interpretation of the statutes so residents can understand what the government’s doing — in open and in closed session,” Molepske said. “If you’re going into closed session you have to have a proper meeting notice because the law presumes a meeting should not be closed. If you’re going to go into closed session, even though it’s routine, you need to properly state the exemption and be sufficiently clear so the public and journalists can understand it.”
This is the second complaint McKenna has filed against the county, who in August filed a discrimination complaint against County Executive Patty Dreier. In that complaint, McKenna alleges several county employees were discriminated against by Dreier due to their age or veteran status in favor of younger employees willing to work for less money. That investigation is also ongoing.
*This story is ongoing.