Waupaca County Circuit Court Judge John Hoffmann ruled that the Weyauwega-Fremont (W-F) School District did not violate the open meetings act when it went into closed session on March 1.
Hoffmann issued his decision Thursday, Oct. 28, in a civil lawsuit filed earlier this year by school board member Neal Loehrke.
Loehrke filed a civil action against Craig Smith, Bill Brace, Mike Haak and Mike Abraham, former school board members who voted to go into closed session on March 1. He also claimed the same four board members violated the state’s open meetings law when they voted as members of the Personnel and Negotiations Committee to go into closed session on March 8.
Loehrke’s third allegation was that former W-F District Administrator F. James Harlan violated the open records law in March.
None of the four board members named in Loehrke’s suit are still on the board. And Harlan has since resigned as the district administrator.
Loehrke, who is the current board president, filed the suit on March 22. He initially sought an injunction to stop the board from voting on an early retirement package for Harlan.
After the April 6 election, the retirement proposal became a moot issue because the new board did not place it on the agenda or vote on it.
Tom Maroney, Loehrke’s attorney, argued in a hearing before Hoffmann on July 21 that the board had violated Wisconsin’s open meetings law in an effort to camouflage its intent to give Harlan a “golden parachute.”
Maroney said the notice for the March 1 meeting was vague and should have clearly indicated that the board was considering a buyout of Harlan’s contract.
Lori Lubinsky, counsel for the four board members and the district administrator, argued that the open meetings law allows government bodies to go into closed session to discuss employee issues and that the wording of the board’s public notice was reasonable and met the law’s requirements.
She asked the court to sanction the plaintiff because she believes the complaint is frivolous. Lubinsky argued that the defendants should be awarded their costs and attorney’s fees.
In his written opinion, Hoffmann said, “I do not find that it was necessary in the agenda notice for the March 1, 2010, meeting to make reference to any potential retirement package, nor am I convinced that it was necessary for that notice to make reference to a ‘buyout’ of Dr. F. James Harlan’s contract.”
Hoffmann also noted that “buyout” is not a legal term, did not appear in the contract, and would not need to be included in a public notice.
Regarding Loehrke’s claim that Harlan violated the open records law, Hoffmann observed that Loehrke made his open records request on Friday, March 12, and Harlan responded in writing with a request for clarification on Tuesday, March 16.
“The request by the plaintiff was broad and general in its scope,” Hoffmann wrote. “The court would find that clarification of the request by Dr. F. James Harlan was appropriate. Considering the intervening weekend, the response was not untimely.”
In finding against the defendant’s motion for sanctions, Hoffmann said, “A reasonable argument was made by the plaintiff that the notice should have been more specific. The court does not find that the making or advocating the claim by plaintiff was being presented for an improper purpose, or not warranted by existing law, or without evidentiary support.”