By Brandi Makuski
The Portage Co. Finance Committee met illegally on Jan. 18, according to an opinion released by a third-party lawyer who was asked to investigate earlier this year.
Mike McKenna, Portage Co. Corp. Counsel, filed a formal complaint alleging 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.
An independent legal office agrees. The case was referred to an outside agency to avoid any conflict of interest, according to Portage Co. District Attorney Louis Molepske.
In a news release from Portage Co. Board Chairman Phil Idsvoog, the investigation was undertaken by Richland Co. District Attorney Jennifer Harper and John Conlon, a special prosecutor for Harper’s office.
“They have concluded that the closed session did violate the Open Meetings law,” the release reads in part. “But that no individuals were subject to a forfeiture action because they did not knowingly violate the law, and it would not be in the public interest to void any actions taken by the [committee] based on the closed session.”
During the closed-session meeting, the finance committee hired an outside law firm to independently investigate the Portage Co. Treasurer’s Office. According to Jennifer Jossie, county finance director, the committee had consulted with the outside law firm — the Milwaukee-based von Briesen & Roper — to ensure the meeting agenda was properly noticed prior to hiring the firm.
The 10-page opinion from Richland Co. was not immediately released to the media. City Times staff made a request for the document on Monday afternoon.
More as we have it.