Editor’s note: This story has been edited to reflect additional comments received after first publication.
Residents in the Village of Kronenwetter Village have accused some village board trustees of bullying and harassing administration employees and citizens and advancing personal agendas, ultimately causing a massive staff shortage that led to curtailed service hours.
Some residents, who addressed a meeting of the Kronenwetter Village Board of Trustees or had their comments read during public comments on Tuesday, also accused officials of wasting taxpayer money, trying to curtail citizens’ right to participate in local government and of potentially violating Wisconsin’s open meetings law.
Judi Akey, former village board president, accused officials of spending precious staff resources on “non-priority issues” such as changing an ordinance to allow golf carts on village roads and renaming a park. She suggested that the board and the interim administrator meet openly to discuss a process for setting village priorities moving forward. She also urged exit interviews for departing employees.
“Please have a professional, objective human resources firm to do exit interviews with every employee who has left village employment in the last two or three years,” Akey said. “…former employees are very reluctant to open up about their real experiences and concerns.”
Akey noted that the current staff turnover “is incredibly expensive in so many ways” – financially, procedurally and most importantly, personally – to those affected. “That includes those employees left behind as well as the taxpayers,” Akey said.
Akey also referred to some comments in board and Administrative Policy Committee meetings that two former trustees deemed inappropriate and “could legally signify a hostile work environment.”
Elizabeth Vedvik and her husband, Alexander Vedvik, who is a citizen member on the Kronenwetter Utility Committee, offered severe criticism for the trustees’ actions and behavior. They specifically singled out trustees Joel Straub, Ken Charneski and Kim Tapper, but focused largely on Straub and Charneski, accusing the two of bullying staff and citizen members. Straub and another trustee, Christopher Eiden, were absent from the meeting.
Straub and Charneski did not respond to request over email for comments. Tapper answered the phone but hung up after he was asked to respond to allegations. But during the meeting on Tuesday, Charneski termed the allegations “blatant” and “serious” and asked for evidence of misbehavior.
Alexander Vedvik accused the committee of shutting off residents’ voices by suspending committees and forming a Committee of the Whole, or COW, which he termed as illegal. On Tuesday, the Board approved a formation of a COW and suspended citizen committees for 90 days. Vedvik also took exception to the trustees resorting to frequent closed sessions, which he said could represent a violation of Wisconsin’s open meeting laws.
Another resident, Chris Johnson, said he is 100% against nixing citizen committees, even temporarily.
Vedvik’s questioned the board’s judgment behind putting the village administrator, Richard Downey, on paid administrative leave and paying $76 an hour to interim administrator, Duane Gau, at the same time. Downey’s severance package was approved on Tuesday. He also accused Straub and Charneski of harassing some citizens, which he said led to the current situation.
Elizabeth Vedvik questioned some trustees’ conduct.
“Instead of attempting to function as a cohesive village board who supports the best interest of the citizens of Kronenwetter, the board has been held hostage by three members (Joel Straub, Ken Charneski, and Kim Tapper) who actively use their position of power to bully village staff, concerned citizens, and other trustees who disagree with their personal agendas and abuses of power,” she said in a written comment that was read during the village board meeting.
She accused the three board members of creating “a threatening environment of distrust, secretive closed-door sessions, and an underlying toxicity that renders the village incapable of being able to competently complete its mission of serving the public.”
Elizabeth Vedvik criticized the decision to rename a local park, an issue also mentioned by former president Akey.
“The most recent example of a personal agenda being propagated by the board is the name change of Sunset Park to Buska park,” she said. “Because land (over 50 years ago) and a nominal ‘goodwill’ donation was presented by Joel Straub and Buska insurance (his wife’s business), a park in our village is being renamed, requiring new signage.”
Alexander Vedvik said the couple in no way is suggesting any wrongdoing by Buska and Buska Insurance or the company’s employees. But he said Straub should have recused himself from the discussion and from voting because renaming the park could financially benefit his wife’s business operation.
Buska VP Cynthia Newman said there was no donation given to the village by the company, but rather from Joseph Buska Jr.’s personal account. The park was originally named Buska Park in 1971.
Village Board President Chris Voll acknowledged that “the current environment is an issue. The board is aware of this.”
“As Village President I have not received any written or verbal complaints of intimidation from any employees, previous or current,” Voll told Wausau Pilot & Review after the story was published. “Admittedly, there are issues that have been publicly stated at board meetings and I know there is discussion within the community about possible poor behavior and comments.”
He added that a former village staff member also made a comment about staff and board relationships at a recent board meeting during public comments. “We are looking into it further.”