Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Waukesha Water Utility now will be held accountable for countless secret meetings.

Patrick Marley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel posted this brief report today:

Madison - The state Supreme Court today overturned an 8-year-old appeals court ruling in saying that government bodies must spell out the business they will take up in [secret] meeting notices when they consider issues of broad public interest.

Today's ruling is the first time the high court has weighed in on the requirements of meeting notices. Under a 1999 appeals court decision, municipalities could list on notices simply that they were taking up licenses, rather than specifying what kind of licenses would be considered and for what businesses. Today's ruling reverses that.

The case stems from the Tomah School Board's 2004 approval of a contract with the teachers union. Brian L. Buswell sued the School District because he said the board did not notify the public for its June 1 and June 15, 2004, meetings that it would consider a controversial contract provision to give union members preference for hiring as coaches.

In the notice for its June 1 meeting, the School Board said it would consider employment negotiations in closed session. In the notice for its June 15 meeting, it said it would consider approving the teachers contract in open session but did not describe the provisions of the contract.

The Monroe County Circuit Court dismissed the case because of the 1999 appeals court decision that said governments had to provide only vague meeting notices. Buswell similarly lost on appeal and then asked the Supreme Court to take up the case.

The high court overruled the 1999 decision, saying governments must balance several factors in determining what to include in meeting notices. They must provide more information when they take up non-routine matters and must weigh the public's interest in an issue in determining how much information to put in notices, the court said.

In the Tomah case, the court said, the district needed to alert the public for both meetings that it was considering the teachers contract but that it did not have to say in the notice that the coaching provision was in the contract. The June 1 notice was insufficient but the June 15 notice was adequate, the court found.

In Waukesha, the Water Utility, as well as the City Council, have relied for decades on the advice and counsel of Waukesha's decidedly third-rate lawyer, City Attorney Curt Meitz.

Meitz gets elected time after time, largely because he doesn't have significant opposition. He's been a spectacular loser in court, having made two trips to the Supreme Court--once over attempts to shut down an adult bookstore and later over objections to EPA rules on Radium in our water. Both times he came back empty-handed. And the public paid for his poor performance, both in dollars and public perception of the quality of City Government.

It is unclear whether he just hasn't any talent, or whether he just doesn't know how to tell his constituents and elected officials that they don't have a case.

He achieved some semi-shocking notoriety decades back for having been accused of domestic violence; deferred prosecution was the disposition, in my recollection.

Many in City government roll their eyes and talk about Meitz's failures in the role of the City's chief legal officer, then complain that they are powerless do anything about the situation, since he is elected.

He has been approving notices of the Water Utility Commission's odious closed sessions (lots of them) and allowing the Commissioners to give short-hand explanations in the agendae: "Discuss Radium Issues" and "Water Supply Issues".

He will have to provide better legal advice and clearance of agenda item descriptions in the future.

Waukesha needs good advice from its City Attorney. The incumbent hasn't shown much talent, wisdom or finesse in his overly-long tenure. He ought to retire.

An even better idea would be to have an attorney who is hired by a panel of experts and elected officials (and subject to performance reviews), rather than an elected official in the position.

[Full Disclosure: City Attorney Meitz received some laughably inept and constitutionally abusive reports about your blogger, and the circumstances of his arrest a number of years ago. He insisted for weeks that he intended to prosecute me for the offense of "Obstructing an Officer" on the Night of Tuesday, October 30, 2000.

On that night, I was--with fifteen others, collectively the most mild-mannered and soft-spoken citizens imaginable, including a woman holding an infant, all of us guests at a private home near Cutler Park, on the front lawn, well behind the police line marked with yellow tape,--ordered by Waukesha's Keystone Kops, to get up on the porch because we were deemed to be a threat to the security of VP Al Gore and his running mate Joe Lieberman, who were campaigning for the White House. It little mattered that Gore and Company were in Chilton, Wisconsin at the time of the police demand. The actions of the police were clearly illegal and unconstitutional, regardless of where Gore was at the time.

I was standing on the bottom step of the crowded porch with Reuters photographer and long-time friend Al Fredricksen, wondering why I was doing what the cops had demanded. Al and I stepped off the porch, a deliberate challenge to their illegal orders. Two officious men-in-blue, whose principal difficulty as police officers seemed to be poor training and inept leaders, grabbed me, cuffed me and perp-walked me two blocks to a squad car, which then drove me one block to a "command post," at which was parked a bus for transporting the arrested to jail. From there off to the pokey.

The police had the good sense to not arrest a member of the working press with two cameras around his neck. That enabled Al to get it all down on film.

For a full five weeks, Meitz insisted that he had grounds to prosecute. I had a local attorney--fellow debate judge, and noble defender of First Amendment Rights, Bradley J. Bloch--who wrote a devilishly effective Motion to Dismiss that he filed at my plea hearing. Upon reading what he was up against, Meitz ran and hid, conceding that he had no case against me, dropping the charges.

Frosting on the cake: Police Chief Sharrock and Asst. Chief Dussault both apologized to Al Fredricksen and me in a meeting held in Mayor Lombardi's conference room. Said Sharrock: "My people should never have arrested you," adding that Meitz had assured them he had the goods and intended to prosecute".

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Of the biblical allotment of three score and ten I have lived only three of them more than a bicycle ride from one of the Great Lakes. I grew up ten blocks from Lake Erie in the (once Irish/Italian ghetto, now newly-hip) "Near West Side" of Cleveland. I can still cycle to the Milwaukee lakefront in an hour and a half; but, a round-trip has always been more than I would (noror ever did) attempt. -0- I'm a "...somewhat combative pacifist and fairly cooperative anarchist," after the example of Grace Paley (1922-2007). -0- I'm always cheerful when I pay my taxes (having refused--when necessary--to pay that portion of them dedicated to war). -0- And I always, always vote.