Vilas County Sheriff Frank Tomlanovich is accusing five members of the county board of allegedly violating the state’s open meetings law in 2011 while making decisions on the county’s 2012 budget.
The supervisors accused by the sheriff of committing the violation were members of the county’s finance and budget committee in 2011. They are board Chairman Steve Favorite and supervisors Chris Mayer, Charles Rayala, Jim Behling and Linda Thorpe.
Favorite denies Tomlanovich’s allegations that anything illegal occurred.
“I drafted all of the amendments that were brought up at the county board meeting with the aid of the county clerk and then they were reviewed by the corporation counsel,” Favorite said. “I am surprised I was not interviewed for his complaint. I haven’t reviewed the complaint yet, but I deny that anything illegal took place.”
Tomlanovich had contacted District Attorney Al Moustakis who he says never took action on the matter. Since then, Tomlanovich wrote a letter June 1 requesting the Wisconsin Attorney General’s office investigate the matter
In the investigative report conducted and provided by the sheriff’s department that listed details of the alleged violation, Tomlanovich claimed:
“Between Oct. 18, 2011, and Nov. 8, 2011, members of the Finance and Budget Committee of the Vilas County Board of Supervisors held one or more illegal meetings for the purpose of formulating a plan, and an agenda, to amend Vilas County’s preliminary 2012 budget.”
The preliminary budget had been prepared by the committee during a two-day meeting held in open session Oct. 17 and 18, 2011. The preliminary budget was to be presented to the full county board at its meeting Nov. 8, 2011.
No other posted meetings of the committee were held before the county board’s budget meeting.
Tomlanovich said that at the Nov. 8 meeting: “It was readily apparent that the members of the finance and budget committee had made numerous amendments to the proposed budget that was prepared during the Oct. 17 and 18 meeting. From the reaction of the other board members it was equally apparent that none of the affected committee chairpersons were consulted about these amendments.”
Tomlanovich said that working off a printed agenda, the members of the finance and budget committee made multiple motions that were discussed and voted on that removed all of the items from a proposed bonding issue. Additional motions were made that resulted in further cuts to various department budgets.
“At one point (supervisor) Mr. (Erv) Teichmiller asked chairman Favorite about the ‘agenda’ they were working off of. Mr. Favorite denied there was an agenda, despite the fact he was holding the document in his hand when he denied its existence.
“Throughout the meeting I sat behind and slightly to the left of Mr. Behling, I could clearly see him holding and reading from the very document that Mr. Teichmiller was referring to. From my position I could see that supervisors Linda Thorpe and Ed Bluthardt also possessed the same document.”
Copy of “agenda”
Tomlanovich said that after the meeting supervisor Emil Bakka gave a copy of the finance and budget committee’s “agenda” to an employee of the sheriff’s department. The document was entitled “Anticipated motions to amend the proposed 2012 budget.”
Tomlanovich said in the report that after the county board passed the budget he had a meeting with Favorite in which they discussed how and why changes were made to the budget after the two-day budget workshop was held. Tomlanovich recorded the meeting and Favorite said he was never told his conversation with the sheriff was being recorded.
According to a recording of the meeting provided by Tomlanovich, Favorite said to him that changes had to be made because the bonding for projects can’t be part of the budget. He said that had to be removed from the budget and thus they had to find spending cuts to make up for the $1.7 million hole in the budget.
“So this is such a significant matter that rather than try to call a third day of meetings and try to sort through this, we could have done that, I talked to Chris Mayer we should take what we’ve got to the full board because everybody could be affected by it and then the full board can debate it,” Favorite states on the recording.
According to the transcript and audio tape of the meeting, Favorite goes on further to say, “A lot of what we in finance worked on between the budget hearings and the county board meeting, we don’t want to start leaking out information and get everybody riled up over nothing. Let’s just do things in good order. Let’s just take our ideas to the board and then we’ll decide them.”
Tomlanovich said the recorded conversation with Favorite “indicates the above named defendants held one or more meetings for the purpose of conducting county business and did so in violation of Wisconsin statutes 19.83(1) and 19.84(1)b by failing to hold meetings in open session and failing to give public notice of those meetings.
AG’s office response
The letter Tomlanovich received from the Department of Justice in response to his complaint said the department was unsure if Tomlanovich had actually filed a formal complaint with the local district attorney. They advised him that if he had not done so, he should.
They also advised the matter should be handled at the local level if at all possible before filing a complaint on the state level.
“Enforcement at the local level is generally more appropriate due to the need for intensive factual investigation, the local prosecutor’s familiarity with the local rules of procedure and the need to assemble witnesses and material evidence,” Assistant Attorney General Thomas C. Bellavia, in the letter to Tomlanovich, said.
Tomlanovich is expected to file the verified open meeting complaint soon with the district attorney’s office.
Supervisor Ed Bluthardt was also a member of the finance and budget committee at the time of the alleged violation, but was seriously ill for several months.
The first meeting he attended after he recovered sufficiently was the Nov. 8, 2011, county board meeting where the budget was approved. He did not attend the two-day budget workshop. For that reason he was not named as a co-defendant in the sheriff’s claim.
Joe VanDeLaarschot may be reached at email@example.com.