An independent investigation has concluded there is not enough evidence to prosecute the Vilas County board chairman and four other county supervisors for alleged violations of the state’s open meetings law.
The decision was announced by Trempealeau County District Attorney Taavi McMahon, who was named special prosecutor to investigate the complaint filed by county sheriff Frank Tomlanovich.
In a letter dated Nov. 28 to Vilas County District Attorney Al Moustakis, McMahon said:
“I have reviewed all of the documents initially submitted and conducted an independent investigation. After reviewing all of the records from the independent investigation I have concluded there is not enough evidence to proceed with a complaint ...”
Tomlanovich had filed a formal complaint with the district attorney’s office which accused members of the county’s finance and budget committee of violating the state’s open meetings law in 2011 while making decisions about the county’s 2012 budget.
In the complaint, Tomlanovich accused county board chairman Steve Favorite and supervisors Chris Mayer, Charles Rayala, Jim Behling and Linda Thorpe of the violations.
From the beginning of the dispute, Favorite denied he or any other supervisors had committed any violations.
Discussion with DA
According to Tomlanovich, he talked to Moustakis in the fall of 2011 about the alleged violations but the district attorney did not act on what they had discussed. After he had heard nothing more from Moustakis, Tomlanovich said he wrote a letter to the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) in June of this year asking them to act on the matter.
DOJ officials later responded to Tomlanovich and advised him to again take up the matter with Moustakis.
“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 stated in the letter to Tomlanovich.
After Tomlanovich filed a formal complaint with Moustakis, McMahon was named as a special prosecutor in the case.
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 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 is heard saying on the recording.
According to the transcript and audio tape of the meeting, Favorite goes on to say:
“A lot of what we in [the] finance [committee] 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.
“From the get-go I knew that we never, ever did anything wrong and I still stand by that,” Favorite said. “I’m not sure if the sheriff really understands the purpose element of the law.
“What’s clear is the budget sessions were held in open meetings and the budget itself was passed by the county board in an open session. The finance committee does not have the power to approve the county budget, only the county board has the authority to take final action on it.”
Favorite added, “anybody can take a look at the open meetings law and see clearly we did not violate it.”
Tomlanovich could not be reached for comment for this story.
Joe VanDeLaarschot may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.