Park Ridge board found in violation of open meetings laws
By Kris Leonhardt
STEVENS POINT – The Park Ridge village board has been found in violation of open meetings laws, after two separate complaints were filed with the Portage County District Attorney’s office in May.
The first complaint was filed on May 7 by Trish Baker and Gordon Renfert.
“Their issue was that they violated (Wisconsin Statute) 19.81…the meeting was conducted, people unable to participate and hear, because it was the first Zoom meeting they’d ever done and if you listen to tape, it was hard to hear, there was feedback…,” said Portage County District Attorney Louis Molepske.
“There has to be some intentional act, like they turned the sound off or something like that, but that did not happen here,”
“My job is to determine did the government provide appropriate and equal access to the public, those with disabilities and the general public and those without internet. In this case, they had a telephone option and an internet option, and most people have a telephone or can go someplace where there is a telephone.”
The second complaint was filed by Jeri McGinley, regarding an email conversation that started with village president, Steve Bergin and village clerk, Kathy Bemowski that says Bergin “knowingly initiated, deliberated upon and defined action to be taken by the full board via email and not in open session,” in violation of Statutes No. 19.83 and 19.96.
“(In) my past experience as a municipal clerk. Every clerk becomes closely acquainted with the Open Meetings Law and its importance and I knew from my time as a clerk that the District Attorney enforces it. So when I saw a clear violation, I knew where to report it,” McGinley said.
Through a Portage County Sheriff’s investigation and further legal analysis, Molepske found the village board in violation and the village clerk at fault for facilitating the violations.
“I have found in this memo that the Village of Park Ridge Board agreed on or about May 4, 2020 in an unnoticed meeting agenda item and not in open session contrary to Wisconsin Statute 19.84, 19.84 and 19.96 to send a letter to the Village of Park Ridge residents to ‘explain their decision’ to approve a contractor for a new fire station…” Molepske said in a Sept. 22 memo.
“I have found that the Clerk acted to facilitate a meeting of the Board by disseminating Trustee (Brian) Kozlowski’s email to all members and ultimately a working draft of a letter to all Board members.
“I have found in this memo that the Board held a series of meetings between May 5, 2020 – May 11, 2020 when members replied and forwarded their responses to each other or to the Clerk who they knew or should have known would then be forwarded to all members.”
As penalty for the violations, Molepske provided a warning to the board and requested education.
“I chose that education of this board was necessary, especially since the chairman in his interview with law enforcement indicated that the board had not had formal training, which frankly is not new. Many of these local boards – town boards, village boards – they have a lot of turnover and not a lot of people want to be these board members. Getting the training is not always priority. In fact, a lot of times people don’t even know these laws exist,” Molepske said.
Molepske also requested that the board place the memo regarding the findings and enforcement on the agenda of the next regularly scheduled board meeting.
“I hope they now know they have the responsibility to learn the Open Meetings Law,” said McGinley following the findings. “I hope they’ve learned the Open Meetings Law is so important that the District Attorney might send a Sheriff’s Deputy to interview them if a complaint is filed. But mostly, I really hope they now know they have to conduct their business in the open where the public can observe.”
“Sometimes, as part-time municipal officials who are relatively new and inexperienced to public service, we learn as we go,” said village president, Steve Bergin in a statement. “There is no question the Wisconsin Open Meeting and Public Records laws are important to good municipal governance. As requested by the Portage County District Attorney, I will set an agenda item for our next Village Board meeting in October to reiterate their importance for the benefit of the entire Board.”
Molepske said that the board has already set up open meetings law training with the District Attorney’s office.