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Blindsiding the village

The Edgar Village Board needs to do a better job of following the Wisconsin Open Meetings law. On Monday, the board took two significant actions following a closed session. One was to purchase two vacant parcels that the village didn’t need from Wells Fargo Bank for $10,000. The second decision was to sell two odd, skinny parcels of land that provided public access to Omar Creek to Duane Werner, an adjacent property owner, for $2,205.

Both actions could have easily sparked a spirited public debate, but, because neither action was publicly announced on the board’s agenda, the board acted without citizen input. This was not just bad faith governance. It was illegal.

Let’s review what the board did, starting with purchase of the bank’s land. Usually, people or businesses wanting to sell land seek the highest price the market will bear. In this case, however, Wells Fargo Bank didn’t want that. It wanted to sell its land (because, apparently, of some new regulations) at a low price, but to the village, so it could claim the sale as a donation and take a tax deduction. This sounds like pretty savvy business dealings, but it’s a matter of debate whether the Village of Edgar should be in the business of helping one of the largest banks in the United States find a way not to pay its fair share of taxes.

Now, let’s review the sale of the skinny parcels. Those properties form what is known in Edgar as “the logging road” and this minor strip of land has great sentimental value to many people. The land was immortalized by Edgar native and author “Buzz” Humke who wrote a semi-fictional novel about his boyhood experience growing up in the village. The book is called “The Logging Road Gang.” Now, as we understand the situation, Werner told board members he wanted to buy the property in order to gate the road and prevent future vandalism on his property. Maybe that’s a compelling argument, but we can imagine plenty of Edgar residents could present equally persuasive counter arguments about retaining that strip of land.

We could take issue with whether the Edgar Village Board used good judgment in making these land deals, but that’s not our main gripe here.

Our complaint here, instead, is two fold: first, that the village’s closed meeting agenda failed to let anybody know with any kind of specificity, as required by state law, that the trustees were contemplating either deal and, second, that the village board had no business deciding the policy questions of whether to make the deals in a closed session. We don’t argue that the village board has the right under the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law to “deliberate or negotiate the purchase of public properties” behind closed doors but, in deciding out of the public view whether to help the bank or Mr. Werner in the first place, the board abused its right to the closed session.

We turn to the Wisconsin appellate court decision in State of Wisconsin v. City of Milton (2007) for our legal North Star. In that case, the City of Milton met in closed session meetings for months to decide whether to bring an ethanol plant to its community. Every one of the meetings was posted as a “negotiations” session. What the court ruled is that while some of Milton’s meetings may have been required for negotiation purposes, not all were and, in holding these meetings in secret, the city avoided a predictably controversial debate over an ethanol plant. A city, the court ruled, can’t use the closed meeting provisions in the Open Meeting Law to skirt debate over issues that need to be aired in public, even if that controversy would hurt the city’s economic development prospects.

The Edgar Village Board should have listed the land deals on Monday’s meeting agenda, discussed the policy options in public session and, depending on that debate, went into closed session to negotiate prices. But the board didn’t do that. The board, instead, blindsided the village residents. This was a clear violation of the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law.