The Wausau Ethics Board will further discuss an ethics complaint filed by Marathon County Supervisor William Harris against City Council Member Debra Ryan, in which he accused her of making false statements against him.
After a discussion lasting a little over 30 minutes, the five-member Ethics Board approved using the services of attorney Ted Waskowski, of Stafford Rosenbaum in Madison, to draw up the agenda for their Jan. 6 meeting. Waskowski’s appointment was approved by the Wausau City Council on Tuesday to help the Ethics Board since the city attorney, who would be advising the board in such matters, is mentioned in the complaint.
Harris, who represents Dist. 3, filed the complaint on Dec. 7 after waiting for Ryan to respond to an Aug. 17 letter he and his attorney sent. The letter asks Ryan to “make a public apology on the council floor” by Sept. 9 for “trying to interfere with (Harris’) employment,” and “making untrue statements about him…that he was inappropriately engaged in the outside practice of the law.” The letter also asks Ryan to “cease these activities in the future.”
In his complaint, Harris asks the Ethics Board to investigate Ryan’s allegation that Harris interfered inappropriately during the debate over the city’s “Community for All” diversity resolution and obstructing City Attorney Anne Jacobson. The Wausau City Council passed the resolution, renamed ‘We Are Wausau’, on Aug. 10. after months-long passionate debate by city leaders and members of the community. Harris was a strong supporter of the resolution, a measure its opponents saw as divisive.
Harris and his attorney have submitted notarized affidavits from Beth Ann Richlen, the executive director of Wisconsin Judicare, Inc. and Dist. 3 Alderman Tom Kilian. Both Richlen and Kilian say that Ryan told them that Harris was providing legal advice to the mayor and interfering with the city attorney. (For all the submitted documents, click here, and go to page 2.)
In an interview with Wausau Pilot & Review, Harris refuted Ryan’s accusations.
“The allegation is 100% false,” Harris said. “I have not provided the mayor any legal advice on the CFA resolution.”
Harris defended the complaint, saying he had to take action after Ryan refused to apologize and was trying harm his livelihood. He said he wanted to hold Ryan accountable for her conduct, adding that he is considering all options against her, including a potential lawsuit.
Ryan, in an email sent Wednesday, told Wausau Pilot & Review that either she or her attorney would respond following the Ethics Board meeting but has not done so as of late morning on Friday. In the same email, she also said that she thought “very highly of Will and I still do.”
When reached for her comments, Mayor Katie Rosenberg provided this statement: “I don’t have anything to share at this time. There was an ethics complaint filed against an alder with the clerk’s office on December 7. The outside counsel was hired to represent Wausau’s Ethics Board and that board will be handling the complaint. I understand I am mentioned in the complaint but since this a matter that the Ethics Board will consider, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the substance or veracity of any of the claims at this time.”
Members of the Board are Mary Thao, Robyn DeVos, Calvin Dexter, Douglas Hosler and Brian Mason. Thao, a former City Council member, and Hosler, a retired professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point at Wausau, were elected chair and vice-chair of the board, respectively.
Board members asked several questions about next steps, how rules will be drawn governing the proceedings, whether they could hold any closed sessions and whether they could discuss the complaint among themselves outside the Ethics Board meetings. But Waskowski reiterated to the group that the first task of the board is to decide whether they have a verified complaint. If the complaint is verified, the next step is investigation.
The Board could draw up rules of the proceedings, the special counsel added, but that could happen only if the board decides to investigate. He also advised board members to hold meetings in open session as much as possible to comply with the state’s open meetings law. Members can not discuss the matter outside of Ethics Board meetings, he added. Waskowski also suggested letting the proceedings dictate the course.
The power and responsibilities of the Ethics Board, including how to proceed with complaints and any recommended actions, are outlined by Wausau ordinance.
There was some confusion about the Ethics Board meeting venue and time and whether it met the threshold of the mandatory 24-hour public notice.
“The agenda for the Ethics Board meeting was originally posted/sent to media on December 15th around 11:30 a.m.,” Deputy Clerk Mary Goede told Wausau Pilot & Review. “Then we changed the meeting room and re-posted it as revised at 3:30 p.m. on the same day, so yes, that met the 24 hours’ notice.”
Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.