Six of 10 current and former Milwaukee County supervisors found to have violated the state open meetings law more than a year ago still haven’t paid their fines.
Some said they forgot; others said they didn’t recall being notified of their fines. One said he was sure he paid but couldn’t find a record of it.
Former Board Chairman Lee Holloway didn’t want to talk about it.
“I’m no longer a county official,” Holloway said when contacted by phone on why his $300 fine remained unpaid. Holloway left the board after 20 years in April. “Merry Christmas, bye-bye,” he said, hanging up.
The lawsuit forcing the issue over whether the board gave proper notice before voting on a redistricting plan on April 21, 2011, was brought by former Supervisor Joseph Rice. Circuit Judge Jane Carroll ruled in Rice’s favor more than a year ago.
Rice didn’t run for re-election last April after the redistricting significantly altered his old North Shore district and paired him with another incumbent.
Though Rice won his case, the fines go to the state. Nine supervisors were each fined just $33.33 for their violations. Holloway was hit with a $300 fine – the maximum under the law – because he was board chairman. Only those voting for the redistricting plan were fined.
Supervisors Nikiya Harris, John Weishan Jr., Gerry Broderick and Marina Dimitrijevic, the current board chairwoman, all paid their fines in June, shortly after all 10 supervisors hit with fines got formal email notification from the county corporation counsel’s office.
The five others who still haven’t paid are supervisors Jason Haas, Theo Lipscomb Sr., Michael Mayo Sr., Peggy Romo West and Eyon Biddle Sr., who also left the board in April.
It’s hard to say whether Holloway or any others might be compelled to pay. Open meeting violation cases are rare and ones that go to court are exceedingly rare, said Robert Dreps, a media law attorney in Madison.
Most such cases are resolved through attorney general opinions.
“It’s usually something you wag your finger at and move on,” Dreps said.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said paying the fines was the least the supervisors should do.
“I think they showed contempt for our tradition of open government,” Lueders said. “You are talking fairly nominal penalties. That makes it even more outrageous that they seek to avoid paying even that.”
The law doesn’t spell out what happens when a fine is ordered but isn’t paid. That may mean Rice would have to go back to court to force the matter, said Clerk of Court John Barrett.
If Rice were to pay a $5 fee to formally enter the ruling in the case, a lien could be placed on any property owned by supervisors who didn’t pay their fines, Barrett said. Rice also could file a contempt of court action or seek wage garnishments to force collection of the fines, said Barrett.
“It gives you pause as to whether there is any teeth in these (open meetings) cases,” Barrett said. “I think it’s a flaw in the law.”
Rice said even though the amounts are small, supervisors should be forced to pay their fines, and it shouldn’t be up to him to take further action.
“Elected officials have an obligation to comply with the open meetings law and have an obligation to comply with a court order,” Rice said.
Four supervisors who haven’t paid the fines said they would do so. Haas and Romo West said their nonpayment was an oversight. Mayo said he hadn’t paid because he knew nothing about the fine. He said he didn’t see the formal notice by the corporation counsel.
“If the court says I’ve got to pay, I’m not going to argue about it,” Mayo said.
Lipscomb said he recalled paying the fine, but that’s not reflected in the court record. Lipscomb said he’ll write another check if no record can be found of his payment.
While accepting the obligation, Lipscomb said it seemed an unusual ruling because supervisors had been advised by an assistant corporation counsel that the County Board had given adequate notice the April redistricting vote would be taken. The state law requires officials must knowingly violate the law for it to count as an infraction.
Biddle couldn’t be reached for comment.
The bigger cost of the case was Rice’s $6,922 in legal fees, which the judge ruled the county had to pay. That cost was covered by the county’s insurance, said Deputy Corporation Counsel Mark Grady.