By Shereen Siewert

An outside attorney will investigate Marathon County Clerk Kim Trueblood’s ability to conduct a fair and impartial election, after social media comments offering to work behind the scenes to promote school board recall efforts.

Trueblood is part of a “Parents for Wausau Schools Reopening” Facebook group that is calling for protests and recalls after the Wausau School Board voted to begin the fall semester virtually. In group posts that have since been removed, Trueblood acknowledged her role as an elections official but offered to “get info & do anything behind the scenes” to aid in a possible recall.

That offer prompted Wausau School Board President Tricia Zunker, acting as a private citizen, to request an ethics investigation. Zunker, a Democrat, is also a candidate for the U.S. 7th Congressional District.

Appointed to the position in September by a split vote of the Marathon County Board of Supervisors, Trueblood, a Republican, is the county’s chief elections official. Though county clerks are elected in Wisconsin to four-year terms, Trueblood applied for the position after longtime Marathon County Clerk Nan Kottke announced her retirement. As the clerk, Trueblood is responsible for appointing, recruiting, and training election workers and overseeing ballots, voting equipment, and polling places. When citizens submit petitions to recall a public official, or an initiative for the ballot, the clerk handles the documents in accordance with state and federal law.

In a special meeting Monday, the Marathon County Executive Committee unanimously approved a motion to direct the matter to outside legal counsel for further review, with costs not to exceed $25,000. A report is expected by Aug. 31.

In a letter to Marathon County Board members obtained by Wausau Pilot & Review, Zunker calls Trueblood’s behavior “alarming and unacceptable in healthy government.”

“Clerk Trueblood’s comments on this post regarding efforts to organize a recall election are unethical and frankly, likely illegal,” Zunker wrote. “She oversees elections in an official capacity. It could not be more wrong. It’s even more abundantly clear that she is aware of this as she prefaces the statement by indicating her need to be cautious publicly due to her official position.”

Trueblood’s predecessor, Nan Kottke, would have ended her term in April 2020. But the Marathon County Board in August, after the job posting closed, voted against holding a special election and instead chose to appoint an applicant to the office.

Following a closed session discussion in September, Trueblood’s appointment was affirmed by a vote of 27-5. She was one of 45 candidates for the job and one of five finalists chosen by a selection committee.

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Dist. 11 Supervisor Alyson Leahy, a Democrat, voted against Trueblood’s initial appointment but said the clerk’s work thus far has seemed nothing but professional.

Dist. 11 Supervisor Alyson Leahy. Photo: Marathon County

“I’m certainly concerned that that might not be the case, and I did vote in favor of hiring outside counsel to investigate the entire matter,” Leahy said. “The integrity of our elections is incredibly important and the public deserves to know that the county is taking this seriously.”

Dist. 6 Supervisor Jeff Johnson, a Democrat who is also running for the Wisconsin Assembly, was one of five supervisors voting against Trueblood’s appointment in September. A former probation and parole agent, Johnson raised questions about Trueblood’s criminal conviction for writing a worthless check, a 2002 misdemeanor charge in Dodge County, and about several small claims actions taken against her. Those issues, Johnson told the board in September, showed a pattern of behavior unacceptable for a position that requires conferring great trust.

Dist. 6 Supervisor Jeff Johnson. Photo: Marathon County

Now, Johnson said he is deeply troubled by Trueblood’s actions and is considering asking for her resignation.

“I wish I would have been wrong last year, but here we are,” Johnson told Wausau Pilot & Review. “She should be nowhere near the 2020 election.”

By state statute, Trueblood can be removed by the Marathon County Board or by Gov. Tony Evers.

Marathon County Board Chair Kurt Gibbs told Wausau Pilot & Review he would release a statement about the committee’s decision and the implications of that decision on Tuesday.