Janesville City Council's closed meeting on fire station draws questions

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Frank Schultz
Thursday, March 13, 2014

JANESVILLE—The preferred location for a new city fire station was kept from the public for about three months, but it didn't have to be that way.

The decision to build a new central fire station near the site of the current Station No. 1 on Milton Avenue has become controversial, because of its tentative price tag—more than $9 million—and because it would remove either eight or 12 homes.

State law did not allow a closed meeting the city council held when it chose a site for the fire station last Nov. 25, in the opinion of an expert in the Wisconsin open-meetings statute.

Attorney Bob Dreps reviewed the minutes of the Nov. 25 closed session, which The Gazette obtained Thursday.

The minutes describe policy decisions about where the station should be and how big it should be, Dreps said. Those considerations are not reasons to close a meeting as defined by the statute, he said.

The official notice of the closed session said its purpose was to discuss and set bargaining strategies, terms and conditions for the potential acquisition of properties for a new fire station.

The council went well beyond those guidelines, including choosing a site from among nine choices. The council also directed city officials to begin acquisition of the lots and houses needed for the project.

Jay Winzenz, who was acting city manager at the time, said the city customarily holds closed meetings when the topic is acquiring property.

The choosing of a site and the issue of negotiating to buy private properties were tied together, Winzenz noted.

Dreps said the law doesn't allow for that kind of reasoning.

“The fact that this is going to require negotiations in order to acquire the property doesn't entitle them to keep it secret,” Dreps said.

The city attorney's office did not return a call about the question Thursday.

“Where to locate a government building is clearly and obviously a policy decision,” Dreps said. “... Talking about what's best for citizens, that's not competing or bargaining.”

The state attorney general's open-meetings compliance guide says only issues that can be kept from the public can be discussed in a closed session. Related issues must be taken up in open session.

Winzenz said city staff wanted a closed meeting because disclosing the site affects the city's ability to negotiate prices.

“Sometimes when people find out the city is interested in buying properties, then the price goes up,” Winzenz said.

But would Nov. 25 discussions have made any difference, given that the site had to be disclosed eventually?

“Competitive or bargaining reasons permit a closed session where the discussion will directly and substantially affect negotiations with a third party,” according to the attorney general's guide, but not where the discussion might indirectly affect negotiations.

The principles involved in deciding to close a meeting for competitive or bargaining reasons were decided about seven years ago in a lawsuit brought by opponents of the Milton ethanol plant.

The state Court of Appeals ruled that the law allows a closed meeting in these circumstances only if the discussion “would reveal its negotiation strategy or the price it planned to offer for a purchase of property.”

City Council President Kathy Voskuil said the Nov. 25 meeting did not include discussions of particular properties or what they might be worth.

The Nov. 25 discussion did include an explanation of how the city normally negotiates to buy properties, Winzenz said.

“To the best of my knowledge, I probably mentioned to council that we would be going through an appraisal process and that property owners would at least receive the fair market value, that they are entitled to relocation benefits,” Winzenz said.

That information was discussed when the city council met in open session Monday.

Voskuil recalled that eminent domain was mentioned briefly in the closed meeting, as one of the options that included owners voluntarily selling their properties.

If eminent domain is used to take property against an owner's wishes, the council still will have to vote on that, Voskuil noted.

Property owner Joyce Shea, 706 Prospect, believes the decision is made, and there's nothing she can do about it.

“They kept it hidden. They did it in a very covert manner, and they didn't want the people to know it,” Shea said.

The affected property owners first heard something was going on in a Feb. 20 letter from the city inviting them to a neighborhood meeting, but even then it wasn't clear, Shea said.

Shea said she first understood from a Feb. 26 Gazette article.

“I think the way they did it was really horrible,” Shea said.

Voskuil said that now, residents have plenty of time to have their voices heard. The plan commission will take up the station plans in early April, and the city council could make a final decision on April 14.

Voskuil encouraged residents to speak at meetings or send their opinions to city council members.

The decision could be delayed even further, Voskuil said. If so, Voskuil will no longer be on the council. A council with up to two new members will take over later in April.

Council member Matt Kealy, who has opposed a new station and wants to renovate the existing station, said he understands the concern about the closed meeting, although he didn't think about it at the time.

“Looking back, I guess this could've been a conversation we could have had in public,” Kealy said.

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