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W’bago releases meeting tape

By Staff | Apr 20, 2009

Jennifer Feely

The public will get its chance to hear what was said behind closed doors at a Winnebago City Council meeting illegally closed last month.

That was the advice of City Attorney Douglas Johanson at Tuesday night’s council meeting.

“It is my opinion the closed meeting should have been opened,” says Johanson. “It appears to me the lead up to the closing of the meeting did not set forth a valid reason for closing the meeting.”

Johanson was not at the March 10 meeting when Mayor Randy Nowak closed it to discuss what he termed “personnel issues.”

It all started when councilmembers Dana Gates and Chris Ziegler began questioning the city administrator about the process used when making budget cuts, management style and amount of “comp time” accrued. Councilman Bob Weerts suggested the meeting be closed if personnel matters were going to be discussed.

Councilman Rick Johnson asked the city attorney what would happen if they chose not to let the public hear the tape.

Johanson held firm with his recommendation, explaining that if someone took the case to court the city’s chances of winning would not be very good.

“I think the best way to remedy the situation is to open it,” says Johanson. “Usually you are better off in these situations to move forward so as to solve the problem before the problem goes any further.”

Ziegler asked Johanson if he had listened to the tape.

Johanson says what is on the tape is irrelevant and does not pertain to the Open Meeting Law.

Weerts made a motion to make the tape public and it was seconded by Gates, but it wasn’t without some reservation.

Gates says “this is gonna be interesting,” referring to contents of the recording.

“Often times when you close a meeting, you’re more apt to saythings you don’t ordinarily say in the public eye,” adds Gates.

Johanson says it was the council’s sincere desire to discuss a personnel issue.

In addition to not having an adequate reason, the city attorney says the council also failed to hold a vote on the closing.

City officials can close a meeting for an employee evaluation, but they must state the person’s name and give them a choice if they want the meeting to remain open.

“I think our best option is to alleviate what I consider to be an honest mistake and open it up to the public,” says Johanson.

In the end, the council unanimously voted to release the tape, following `much discussion.

The public may listen to the audio tape at City Hall during business hours.

In other business, Steve Willett of Minneapolis challenged Weerts to a public debate over the city spending $100,000 to purchase the parking lot in front of the new grocery store.

“I believe you guys followed the law, but what I wanted to do was become better informed as to how that money was justified,” Willett told the council.

The city bought the parking lot when Weerts was not a member of the council.

Johanson told Willett that cost of the lot actually was around $180,000.

Scott Robertson, owner of Precision Concrete, poured concrete for the lot and Weerts did some landscaping work.

When Willett asked Johanson if he could meet with him to discuss the transactions, Johanson replied he was not interested because it violated an attorney-client privilege matter with the council.

Johanson told Willett that pending litigation he has against Weerts on another matter prevents him from getting involved.

“With him (Weerts) being on the council, it’s all mesh together, in my opinion,” Johanson says.

Willett says he asked Weerts to repay the city the $100,000, but he refused.

Willett wants the debate to take place at 6 p.m. on May 12, one hour before the council meeting.

He says it could be publicized on the parking lot’s electronic sign.