Two council members accused of city ethics, state open records violations
Two other council members file complaints against them
BY KEVIN BONESKE
The controversy surrounding the recent termination of former Rhinelander city administrator Kristina Aschenbrenner flared up at Monday’s City Council meeting with accusations against the two council members who opposed her firing and subsequently released the performance review forms they filled out about her.
After council members Steve Sauer and Tom Gleason included the performance reviews with their signed statement about Aschenbrenner’s termination in an email message sent to local media last Tuesday, they have been accused by council member Mark Pelletier of violating the state’s Open Records Law and also by council president George Kirby of violating the city ethics code.
Pelletier filed his complaints with the Oneida County district attorney’s office to investigate. District attorney Michael W. Schiek then asked Oneida County captain Teresa Hook to have the sheriff’s department “conduct further investigation.”
“I realize this is the jurisdiction of the city of Rhinelander, however, I spoke with (Rhinelander police) captain Ron Lueneburg and we felt that since the request involved [aldermen] on the city council, it could be a potential conflict for the Rhinelander Police Department,” Schiek stated to Hook in a memo dated Sept. 9.
Kirby’s complaints, which were filed with the city clerk’s office, were discussed by the council Monday and scheduled for setting a hearing at a later date.
Gleason questioned whether the City Council’s hearing would be held after the district attorney’s office conducted its investigation. By not doing so, he said the council would be “basically violating due process by basically hearing and convicting prior to an investigation” concluding.
City attorney Carrie Miljevich said the process for handling a city ethics complaint would be “mutually exclusive” from the district attorney investigating accusations of the state’s open records law being violated.
“The district attorney has a role to play, pursuant to a complaint that was filed, pursuant to a subsection in the Wisconsin statutes,” Miljevich said. “This (ethics complaint) is pursuant to the city of Rhinelander ethics code. Neither one hinges on another.”
Gleason disagreed with Miljevich’s legal opinion, stating that he and Sauer now face accusations of violating the city ethics code because of the complaints that Pelletier filed.
“One is an open records issue and one is a city of Rhinelander ethics issue,” Miljevich said in response.
Sauer noted that when a complaint is filed alleging a violation of the ethics code, the city code calls for the city administrator to investigate the complaint before the matter could be brought to the council for a hearing.
In the absence of a city administrator, Miljevich said, “I don’t think the process dies.”
“The first step, as alderman Sauer indicated, was to file a complaint. Alderman Kirby has done that,” Miljevich said. “The second step would be that the city administrator would investigate whether the complaint is valid. In the absence of a city administrator, you can’t say that this ordinance doesn’t apply…. In the absence of a city administrator, that part then is skipped, so it should go to step three, which is the hearing portion. I think it would be appropriate to set this for a hearing.”
Gleason disputed an accusation in the ethics complaint against him that he “disclosed confidential information without proper legal authorization.”
“That fact hasn’t been established yet because, according to Mark’s complaint, alleging that unauthorized material was released, that hasn’t even been figured, that hasn’t been decided, if what was released was even confidential information,” he said.
Prior to council members voting 6-2 on Aug. 29 to terminate Aschenbrenner’s contract, they approved the review forms at their regular monthly meeting Aug. 8 to fill out for the city administrator’s annual performance review.
Aschenbrenner, who had been the city administrator for almost a year, told the Star Journal that she expected the council members to conduct her performance review at the Aug. 29 meeting when they instead voted to terminate her contract. She also said she wasn’t provided copies of the completed review forms Sauer and Gleason had filled out before those two council members publicly released them with their statement to the media.
Gleason said he would be denied due process if the council would not allow the district attorney to conduct an investigation “and have an answer to that investigation based on evidence that’s collected by an investigator, and then determine what steps should be taken next.”
“Basically, you’re saying we’re guilty until proven innocent, and that violates my constitutional rights,” he said.
Council member Dawn Rog said a complaint filed with the district attorney’s office “has nothing to do with this council.”
“This is a separate complaint,” she said.
Council member Alex Young said the city ethics and state open records complaints are related because they deal with the same underlying facts, but he also noted they are “completely mutually exclusive processes.”
Council members agreed to wait until their regular monthly meeting Oct. 10 to decide on setting a hearing date to consider the complaints against Gleason and Sauer.