Pierce DA issues complaint against county board chair
Pierce County District Attorney John O'Boyle filed a small claims action against County Board Chairman Dick Truax Friday, alleging Truax violated Wisconsin's Open Meetings Law.
Truax is accused of barring county board members Don Nellessen and Dale Hines from an Oct. 22, 2002, meeting of the Personnel Committee. The committee met that day to conduct a performance evaluation of Administrative Coordinator Mark Schroeder.
Violation of the Open Meetings Law involves a $25 to $300 penalty. It will be up to the court to decide if Truax broke the law and to determine the amount of the judgment, said O'Boyle.
In a letter to Nellessen dated late last week, O'Boyle said he decided to prosecute because he believes violations will continue if he doesn't.
Nellessen filed a complaint with O'Boyle in January. He said that, after Personnel Committee members voted to go into closed session on Oct. 22, he and Hines, who were not members of the committee, were asked by Truax to leave.
"We both refused," said Nellessen. He said that, at that point, Corporation Counsel Karen Clayton-Ebert "became very rude and began an effort to contact the sheriff to have us removed."
Nellessen said Hines reminded Truax of state law and asked if Clayton-Ebert could provide county board rules or policies that would require them to leave.
"No such policy was brought forth," said Nellessen. Instead, Truax attempted to cancel the meeting.
Nellessen said that, because he didn't want the meeting postponed, he asked to make a couple of statements. He and Hines made several comments and then left. About two hours later, the committee returned to open session and Hines and Nellessen were allowed back in the room.
In his complaint, Nellessen said he believes Clayton-Ebert misled Truax in an attempt "to insure a favorable performance evaluation" for Schroeder.
"I feel we were unable to bring critical information into view and participate in discussion on this issue," said Nellessen.
In March, a St. Croix County deputy, who was asked to investigate the matter, reported that excluding Hines and Nellessen from the closed meeting was "a clear violation" of Wisconsin's Open Meetings Law.
Investigator Robert Bradford said state law doesn't allow members of a governmental body to be excluded from meetings of sub-units unless the governmental body itself has a rule authorizing such exclusion.
In his June 5 letter to Nellessen, O'Boyle said that, unless there was a substantial violation of the law or "clear intent to deceive," he wouldn't usually prosecute.
But in this case, he has decided to issue a complaint, said O'Boyle.
"Based upon the research that I have done and the information that I have received from the attorney general's office, this should not have even been a close call as to whether or not (Nellessen and Hines) should have been allowed to remain for the entire closed session of the Personnel Committee," wrote O'Boyle.
"It is also my opinion that future violations are likely to continue to occur if some type of enforcement action is not initiated on your complaint," wrote O'Boyle. "The various supervisors that were interviewed (by Bradford), that have been on the board for a number of years, continually referred to things being done according to 'past practices.'
"Given the tenor of that type of attitude by several of the board members that were interviewed, it would appear to me that voluntary compliance with the law is unlikely to happen in the future unless some type of enforcement steps are taken."
O'Boyle said he consulted with attorneys in other counties before deciding to file the complaint in small claims court.
"It's not quite the same as a regular traffic citation," he said. A money judgment is being sought, and the State of Wisconsin is the plaintiff.
A first appearance on the complaint is set for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, June 24.