Manager pledges transparency, saying it is the "right thing" to do

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Marcia Nelesen
Thursday, May 15, 2014

JANESVILLE--Some Janesville City Council members were surprised when a discussion about buying a downtown property was scheduled for open session, but new City Manager Mark Freitag said it was part of an ongoing effort to assure transparency at City Hall.

The supporting materials for Tuesday's meeting included purchase offers and counter offers, and several council members indicated that information in the past had been kept behind closed doors to conceal the city's hand from the seller.

Freitag said that just because such topics can be held in closed session doesn't mean they should be. He said he considered the discussion more of an update for the council to decide how to proceed with negotiations.

The property has been identified as important to downtown revitalization plans. As such, the discussion that led to a vote to continue negotiations will help the community gauge the council's support for downtown revitalization, Freitag said.

The council recently has been accused of violating open meetings laws.

In November, the council voted in closed session to locate a new fire station at a site that meant the demolition of up to 12 homes. The council narrowed the site from a number of others. No actual purchase prices were discussed.

Wisconsin open meetings laws allow negotiations for property to be in closed session as one of the few exceptions.

Residents did not find out until late February that their homes were targeted for the fire station.

A lawyer for the Wisconsin Newspaper Association said then that municipalities often violate the provision when they confuse negotiations with policy.

Freitag started as city manager in December.

In January, the council decided in closed session to investigate selling the landfill, a policy discussion, as well.

Freitag, a former Army colonel, has acknowledged climbing a steep learning curve from Army officer to public leader. Councilman Jim Farrell urged Freitag to attend a seminar on open records and open meetings laws earlier this spring, and Freitag did so. Freitag recently told a reporter he is committed to learning about them and being as transparent as possible.

Councilman Sam Liebert on Tuesday asked if the discussion could be moved into closed session. It could not because the meeting agenda did not include a closed session.

Liebert said the council in his years has never talked in open session about buying property.

“I think the recent fire station (closed session) is something that most of us didn't know and realize,” he said, alluding to the November closed meeting.

But Liebert said discussing the purchase of property in open session cornered the council.

“We'll have to take them at their counter offer,” Liebert said. “There is no wiggle room.”

President DuWayne Severson, too, expressed surprise.

“I guessed these types of matters would be in closed session, based on the past,” he said.

The council originally offered $150,000 for the River Street property, and the bank countered at $275,000. Recently, the bank notified the council it had other interested parties. Councilman Matt Kealy made the motion in open session Tuesday to authorize staff to bargain up to $275,000.

Freitag said Wednesday the council had several options and could have been more general in its motion. For example, the council could have been less specific and directed staff to find an appropriate sales price between the initial offer and the counter offer.

The council also could have directed staff to end negotiations, deciding the purchase was not in the city's interests. That, too, would have been information worthy to be aired in an open meeting, he said.

Kealy said he made the motion that set the council's top price in public Wednesday rather than wait for another meeting because he thought it was important the city secure the building rather to lose it to other interested parties.

The eventual motion went beyond what staff thought the council would do, but Freitag said he was pleased with the discussion and the direction “so we can go and make things happen."

The public discussion was the “right thing,” he said, and it shows the council is interested in moving forward downtown.

“In the spirit of transparency … it seemed appropriate to have it in the open,” Freitag said.

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