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When it comes to politics, Magnolia is a town divided

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GINA R. HEINE
January 14, 2008
— Rock County District Attorney David O'Leary calls it "town politics at its worst."

Residents call it a culture of "intimidation and withholding of information."


A town supervisor calls it an "unhappy" handful of candidates who didn't win an election.


The town of Magnolia has been a hotbed of controversy, and residents say they just want an open, functioning government.


"You can please some of the people some of the time," said Supervisor Dave Olsen, who said he was speaking as the town spokesman. "Hopefully, we can please most of the people most of the time, but we're never going to please all the people all the time."


Several issues polarize the town.


It's been more than five years since Larson Acres, the county's largest dairy farm, applied for a conditional-use permit for a heifer barn on County B. The permit is approved with conditions, but the town and a group of residents are fighting it in circuit court, saying they need to protect the town's water.


"If you don't think the Larsons were treated fairly, then you're pro-Larson," resident Kris Benedict said. "Everyone is put into very broad categories; then that's your identity. There's no shades of gray. You're either for the board or against the board, and that's just sad."


Looming are proposals for a 100-megawatt wind farm—67 turbines—for the township's rolling countryside. A group already has organized to oppose the plan.


On the record

Exchanges and comments during town meetings turned so sour that two residents started videotaping meetings. Benedict and Laurie Drew attend as many meetings as they can with video cameras.


Meeting minutes don't reflect all that unfolds, they said. The issue is accountability, Benedict said, both for the board and residents.


"It can be easy to treat people poorly if there's no record or ramifications," she said. "Research shows filming encourages people to conduct themselves in a higher standard."


It worked for a while, she said. The meetings didn't seem as confrontational on either side, but not anymore, she said.


Olsen disagreed. He said the videotaping hasn't changed how the board conducts meetings.


"I've learned to just ignore it," he said.


Board relations

Bringing suggestions to the town board was not a pleasant experience for Kathy Wells, a 4-H leader.


"I was not treated very respectfully at the meeting," she said. "It definitely makes you not want to participate. If they're insulting, rude and dismissive without reason, it makes you say, ‘Well, why should I bother?'"


Residents Gordy and Barb Andrew recall meetings where a board member told a resident to sit down and "shut up." Recently, they said, Olsen told Gordy he was being rude after Gordy questioned the board about water quality at specific wells throughout the township.


Olsen said board members are respectful. At times, he said, they are the ones being harassed.


"I could have said more," he said of Andrew's comments. "I had to bite my thumb."


Barb understands the board can get frustrated.


"But I believe that people who are in government and who want to be our leaders are held to a standard that's maybe a little higher than being respectful and open to citizens of the township," she said. "The board seems to think that after so many years of intimidation and withholding of information, people get worn down and then they don't come out and don't participate."


Kevin and Lynda Kawula, who live on the township border but in Spring Valley, have attended meetings since summer and said their experience has been entirely positive. They describe Magnolia Town Board members as "honest and hardworking and generous with their time."


"I've found them to be tolerant and extraordinarily patient with people who were clearly quite upset about various township issues, including myself," Lynda wrote in an e-mail. "I've witnessed them handle some harsh words and accusations with grace and a willingness to listen."


With years of tension over Larson Acres, Kevin wonders if people now know how to push each other's buttons. He suggests a third-party mediator to help with the Larson case.


Picking sides

When Benedict and her husband, Mark, started getting involved in town government, she said she saw a lack of respect for residents whose opinions differed from those of town officials.


"I really believe that the board feels that if they know (a person) didn't vote for them, (then) they don't represent them," she said.


Olsen said that's not true.


"We represent all people from Magnolia," he said.


As an example, he cited a reduction in recycling costs as a board action that helped all town residents.


About 56 percent of eligible voters in the town cast ballots in the spring 2007 election. Town Chairwoman Fern McCoy won 177-154 over Lauraine Smith. McCoy has been chairwoman since 1988 and was first elected to the board in 1979.


Olsen, first elected in 2003, won 191-137 over Mark Benedict.


"I must be doing something right," Olsen said. "My goal is to keep the majority of people happy the majority of the time."


Newcomer Tim Swanson beat George Andrew, Gordy's brother, 176-151. Swanson later moved out of the township and resigned, and in October, the board appointed Kurt Bartlett as a supervisor.


In her 2007 campaign statement to The Janesville Gazette, McCoy said, "I would like the citizens of Magnolia to be treated fair and equal."


But some residents say that's not how it's working.


"It has become apparent that there is never going to be a common ground. If I bring something up, the answer will be no, and that's sad," Benedict said. "Then you have to completely change the board to make changes instead of being able to work together. That's not the way the political process is supposed to work."


The board will be up for re-election in 2009.


Trip to the DA

Olsen, McCoy and Clerk/Treasurer Graceann Toberman requested a Nov. 5 meeting with District Attorney David O'Leary over concerns that Laurie Drew misrepresented herself at a Wisconsin Towns Association conference.


Drew attended for her job as events coordinator for EcoEnergy, the company proposing the wind farm.


Town officials alleged that Drew acted as the town clerk when talking with a Web site designer. The designer later sent a cost estimate to develop a Web site for the town to Toberman's home, but it was addressed to Drew as the town clerk.


The town officials also alleged that Drew did not pay to attend the conference.


"When I actually investigated it, I found out that she didn't do what they claimed she did," O'Leary said. "Then the real stunner for me was that even after I told the town board that I had proof she did not do what they thought she did, they still wanted to argue with me that they believed she did."


The towns association confirmed that Drew paid, and the Web site designer admitted it was his mistake and apologized, according to documents from O'Leary.


O'Leary said he knows Drew personally, having graduated from high school with her. But had there been evidence of criminal action on Drew's part, O'Leary said he would have forwarded the matter to the attorney general's office for special prosecution.


"It became fairly clear that they (town officials) were more upset with her because she is taking an active role in town politics, and that appeared to be the underlying reason for their actions," O'Leary said.


O'Leary said he was stunned even further to learn that Toberman and Drew are sisters-in-law, and he wondered why the situation wasn't handled among themselves.


Olsen said town officials first contacted the state attorney general's office, which advised them not to contact Drew and to contact the district attorney.


"(We're) glad we did do it, and everything's OK," Olsen said. "It did work out good."


Drew said she's reviewed the documents from O'Leary and said they speak for themselves.


O'Leary said the town officials wouldn't listen to him.


"They already had their minds made up, and they wanted to attack her publicly," O'Leary said. "It seems to be town politics at its worst."


Board members returned to O'Leary's office Nov. 27 to complain about Drew, saying she asked a county official to change an item in a town plan.


"It seemed clear to me they wanted political ammunition against someone that they did not like," O'Leary said.


Open government

The concerns of residents extend beyond the board's conduct.


Benedict suspected the town was violating state law by charging $10 for the first page of records and $1 for each page after.


She brought her concerns to the board at an August meeting, and she said she was treated rudely and told the charges were to cover the time and expense of processing requests.


The Gazette discovered the charging policy when requesting records and sent a letter in July to town officials saying they were violating the state's open records law. The letter suggested that the town change its policy.


Benedict and town officials contacted the Wisconsin Attorney General's Office, which advised the board to change its policy.


The town now charges 25 cents per page.


"We were wrong. It was a mistake," Olsen said. "We refunded every dime."


O'Leary said he is investigating other complaints related to open government in Magnolia. He said board members expressed frustration over why Drew was attending meetings—as a resident or as a representative of her trucking business or EcoEnergy.


"It doesn't matter," O'Leary said. "(Residents) can attend meetings to participate and ask questions. That's politics 101. Citizens are entitled to participate, and they're entitled to object, and they're entitled to ask questions. And that seems to bother this board."


Gordy Andrew is frustrated by the lack of a response on a question he's been asking for months: What is the town doing to protect all of the town's water—as board members say they're doing—rather than just at Larson Acres?


Olsen said the town paid for water testing last fall for anyone who brought a sample. But that's as far as the town can go, he said, because the town can't regulate small farms like it can a permitted farm such as Larson Acres.


The town has done what it can to bring people together, Olsen said.


"I really want to work with everybody," he said, adding of the town board: "It's just as open and honest as you can be."



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