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The Lakeland Times | Minocqua, Wisc.

Jim Tait 02/01-02/28/17

home : opinions : opinions
December 17, 2017

12/1/2017 7:28:00 AM
One more time: Where's the Benjamins?

And so now it is legally official: The Boulder Junction Town Board violated the open-meetings law last year when it convened a closed session to consider the compensation of an elected official, namely, the town's clerk-treasurer.

For one thing, the town board has no jurisdiction over the position's compensation; town electors do. And even if the board did, the discussion about whether clerk-treasurer Kendra Moraczewski qualified for a benefit payout, and for how much, was one the public had a right to hear.

Ultimately, everybody knew the town board broke the law, and so did the defendants - town chairman Dennis Reuss, supervisor Denny McGann, and then supervisor Dennis Duke. That's why they acknowledged it and stipulated to it for the court.

And that order, signed by Vilas County circuit court judge Neal A. "Chip" Nielsen, not only entered into court records a final finding of a violation; it declared the vote to award Moraczewski $8,700 void.

In other words, that vote doesn't exist, and so the payout was and is illegal.

Curiously, though, as Reuss confirmed to The Lakeland Times this week, the money hasn't been returned. He says the town board will publicly address the matter soon.

We'll take him for now at his word, but we hasten to add that we won't do so for long because right now $8,700 in taxpayer money has been removed illegally from the town treasury, and that, if it continues to be the case, is a prosecutable offense.

Indeed, when Vilas County district attorney Martha Milanowski - who, by the way, deserves praise for her pursuit of this infraction - filed her complaint, she specifically asked the court to void the compensation vote because it was improper and had a fiscal impact on taxpayers.

That remains the case, and it brings up another curiosity, that is, given the complaint against the town board members, we wonder why Milanowski did not insist that the defendants stipulate to repaying or retrieving the money for the town as a consequence of the illegal disbursement.

We believe that should have been part of the deal, and we believe there should have been consequences and fines if they failed to do so or were unable to reclaim or repay the money.

Perhaps in Milanowski's mind, voiding the vote makes it obvious the money must be returned, but no one should ever assume anything when it comes to current Boulder Junction officials. They have proven in this case that they cannot read the plain language of state law or even of their own ordinance, so we can't really expect them to read between the lines of anything.

The truth is, we believe the town board members should have had to pay forfeitures for the open-meetings infraction itself, though Milanowski let them off the hook. We believe forfeitures were warranted because there are aggravating circumstances surrounding the entire incident.

We are, for instance, asked to believe that they were ignorant of the law because of a complicated ordinance framework. 'No, no,' they proclaim, 'we didn't mean to violate the law.' Yet we are taught from early on that ignorance of the law is no excuse, and especially that should be the case for elected officials.

It is especially incumbent upon government officials to know the open meetings law, and to suffer consequences when they violate it.

In addition, not only was the closed session (and thus the vote) illegal but the board members failed to amend the town budget to accommodate the payment, something they would have been obliged to do even if a payout had been legitimately forthcoming and the vote had been legal.

What's more, Moraczewski was not even entitled to a payout because she had not accumulated the needed days (60) to qualify for any payout, and, not only that, but, according to the plain language of the ordinance, she would have had to accumulate 60 more days than she had to get the payout of $8,700 that she received.

We are asked to believe the board members were not aware of their own ordinance when they made such an unconscionable payout and when they decided to do so behind closed doors.

So let's sum it all up. The town board members ignored the open meetings law. They ignored the statutes regarding the compensation of elected town officials. They ignored their own lack of jurisdiction. They ignored the legal process by which budgets are amended. They ignored the plain language of their own town ordinance in paying out accumulated benefits.

Amazingly, we are asked to believe this was all unintentional.

Perhaps, but we believe it smacks of official misconduct of the highest order. Sadly, the court let these officials off without consequences and without even an overt stipulation to return the illegal disbursement.

But the money must be returned, and quickly, or further and more serious action must be pursued.

Two final thoughts. First, Moraczewski herself should be held accountable by the voters of Boulder Junction for her role in this matter. No, she is not legally culpable for convening an illegal closed session, and she did not have a vote on the payout, but she still accepted the ill-gotten gains.

She should not have done so, and she should have pointed out how improper it all was. Not only should Moraczewski be able to read town ordinances but as the clerk-treasurer she had a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers that she failed to perform and, even worse, in a matter in which she financially profited. She has also not repaid the money herself, as of this writing.

So Moraczewski might not be legally culpable but, after such an egregious breach of duty, she should not serve any longer as clerk-treasurer. These days she must surely walk around the town office looking much like an emperor with her new clothes, when she is in fact wearing not a stitch of credibility.

She should resign.

Second, it is so important that the people of Boulder Junction not let this court decree become a hollow victory, an infraction in name only that allows these officials to continue to behave in the same way in the future.

Without any consequences, these officials may continue to act in the same brazen fashion as in the past. Even worse, officials in other towns might now be encouraged to break the law, too, if no one is going to be held accountable.

Right now, the legal system has found these people guilty, but it did not hold them accountable. That is left now to the people of Boulder Junction.

Ultimately they can do so in the voting booth, but they can start the process of accountability right away by asking at town meetings, resoundingly and over and over again, a simple question:

Where's the Benjamins? Where's the Benjamins the board took from the taxpayers illegally?

They should not stop until the money is returned.

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