Wega train decision concerns judge
Shaw delivers 2018 municipal court recap
By Scott Bellile
A municipal judge worries that a railroad company could cause “a tragic situation” if its trains continue to block Weyauwega highways, especially now that the Wisconsin Court of Appeals ruled in the company’s favor.
New London-Weyauwega Joint Municipal Court Judge Laurie Shaw delivered an update on court activities so far this year to the New London Finance and Personnel Committee on Nov. 7.
The case that Shaw has described as the biggest in her tenure, a 2015 trial between the city of Weyauwega and Wisconsin Central Ltd., finally ended in the railroad company’s favor a couple months ago after three years of appeals.
On Sept. 27, 2018, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals District IV reversed the Waupaca County Circuit Court’s decision again Wisconsin Central, a subsidiary of Canadian National Railway Company.
The court of appeals voided 65 outstanding citations against Wisconsin Central, which at $750 per citation totaled nearly $49,000.
The court of appeals ruled that Weyauwega Police Department lacked the authority to cite Wisconsin Central each time its idle trained blocked the roadway at several intersections for more than 15 minutes.
Shaw ruled in favor of Weyauwega in 2015. After Wisconsin Central’s first appeal, Waupaca County Judge Vicki Clussman upheld Shaw’s ruling in 2017.
The city of Weyauwega argued that Wisconsin Central’s idling on the tracks creates a safety hazard because the emergency response services are located on the city’s south side, and they cannot access the north side when trains are stalled across all three intersections.
The state appellate court wrote in its opinion that the Federal Railroad Safety Act and its related regulations invalidate a Weyauwega city ordinance that prohibited trains from blocking railroad crossings for more than 10 minutes.
“Basically the premise that Weyauwega was presenting was, because of the layout of the community and the way the roads are situated, [it is a] very unsafe situation,” Shaw told the New London Finance and Personnel Committee. “If you need to get emergency vehicles across, you just can’t. It’s a huge delay. So unfortunately for that community, I hope that it doesn’t result in a tragic situation because they really have tried everything they can do to protect the citizens.”
Mayor Gary Henke struck a pessimistic tone, predicting Wisconsin Central’s practices “will someday” result in tragedy.
Shaw, an elected official, began serving as municipal judge in May 2014.
Since taking over, Shaw cleared a backlog of cases, collected past debts and trimmed the municipal court’s annual budget from $49,504 in 2014 to $36,000 this year.
“I’m a tightwad,” Shaw said. “We cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. We’re doing good. We don’t have as much money rolling in because we cleaned up a bunch of the stuff when we first started, but we’ve really been able to keep expenses down.”
Shaw presented statistics on court cases and revenues from Jan. 1 through Oct. 31 to the New London Finance and Personnel Committee.
In that time, 782 citations were issued between New London (511) and Weyauwega (271).
Ten trials have been held in the court so far this year. Four of them concerned disorderly conduct cases.
New London-Weyauwega Joint Municipal Court has 142 outstanding writ warrants totaling $33,045.
Law enforcement can only arrest people with writ warrants in Waupaca or Outagamie counties. The defendant serves one day in jail for every $50 due.
“We don’t issue a warrant that somebody would get picked up down in Milwaukee County on a $98 speeding ticket because it’s just not efficient,” Shaw said.
The municipal court currently has 150 cases totaling almost $370,000 in the Tax Refund Interception Program, which collects debts of at least $20 from juvenile defendants and people with active writ warrants.
Through TRIP, the court collects debts through the defendant’s annual tax return.
The court has collected just $1,480 in TRIP payments from New London and Weyauwega defendants in 2018. Shaw said this number will not increase much until next tax season.
The municipal court has 531 cases totaling about $154,000 in a separate program the Statewide Debt Collection.
Through SDC, the Department of Revenue collects debts of at least $50 from adult defendants through wage garnishments.
In 2018, the court collected $27,077 in SDC payments from defendants.
Fifty-one defendants are on monthly debt payment plans. Collectively, their debts total $34,843.
The municipal court holds sessions twice per month at the New London Municipal Building.
The city’s attorney presents the case against the defendant and the judge makes a determination after hearing the defendant’s side of the story. There is no jury.
The defendant may hire an attorney. The city does not provide public defenders.