Totten Called Out on Conflict on Interest
Board Members Jeff Ebel, left, Lisa Totten and Trish Baker, right. (City-Times photo)
By Brandi Makuski
School Board Member Lisa Totten has come under fire for not leaving the room after recusing herself from closed session negotiations with district employee unions.
Totten, whose husband is a teacher in the school district, recused herself from voting on the preliminary 2014-15 district budget, which was presented to the public and in open session during the August 25 meeting. But about two hours into that meeting, the board voted to enter into closed session for the following reason:
“[for] considering employment, promotion, compensation, or performance evaluation data of any public employee over which the governmental body has jurisdiction; specifically contract negotiations regarding AFSCME, Teamsters, SPEAA and SPAEA; and specifically the review and employment of the superintendent.”
Totten, whose husband was a district employee when she first ran for office in 2011, has consistently recused herself from discussions relating to employee negotiations but she remains in the meeting room to listen, which is legal under state statute.
But now at least one board member is calling her out.
Meg Erler, who formerly served in Village of Plover government and as a member of the Portage County Board of Supervisors, said it’s high time Totten leave the room during closed session meetings from which she recuses herself.
Erler asked Totten just before the board entered into closed session on August 25 if Totten had planned to recuse herself from the negotiation talks.
“I always do, for the teacher’s section,” Totten replied.
“And will you be leaving the room?” Asked Erler.
“No,” Totten said.
“Then I will state for the record that I believe that recusal means that you become as though you are not a member of the board; you’re a member of the public subject to all that the public is entitled to,” Erler said. If we’re in open session, as just occurred, and recusal happens, the public is invited to remain in the room, and does so. Closed session, the public is not allowed in the room. And I believe as a matter of good governance, as a matter of being clear to prevent any appearance of impropriety that it would be helpful and appropriate to not remain in closed session.”
Erler, who has a law degree, added she knew it was Totten’s choice to leave, but said her presence could undermine the negotiation process.
“I believe it will have an inhibitory impact, potentially, on my ability to participate in full in closed session,” she said. “Also, there’s potential for legal liability to the district in the event that whatever action is determined in that closed session is determined to mean, that you had participated within the meaning of the statute. Then we are all, as board members, as a board and as a school district, subject to potential liability, as well as subject to the reality that whatever decisions that were made or rendered are moot because of the violation.”
Erler said her remarks weren’t personal but a matter of proper procedure and business.
“I have never in all of my involvements with government had someone recuse themselves and then remain in the room,” Erler said. “I think it’s inappropriate and I think it shows an appearance of impropriety. There’s a concern in the public; you’ve openly admitted you have a conflict of interest, but you’re going in that room like any other member of the public.”
Totten could not be reached for comment to this story but did not make further public remarks to Erler’s statement. Totten remained in the room that night for the entire closed session.