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By Joe Block 

Village board member denies ethics violation

Trustee Josh Wahl casts deciding vote, is employed by subcontractor for Community Park project

 

August 29, 2019



Village of Black Earth trustee Josh Wahl, who cast the deciding vote in favor of the $750,000 Community Park project, is employed by one of the subcontractors for the project. Wahl is listed as “project manager” and as part of the “management team.” The company, Electric Construction Inc., is listed as a subcontractor on bid documents for the project.

On Thursday, Aug. 29, the Star News sent a letter to Village President Pat Troge and Wahl noting the possible ethics violation. The Star News had consulted with legal counsel at the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Counsel confirmed based on the information available that Wahl’s vote appeared to be a violation of state statute. In their opinion, awarding the bid to the company Wahl works for entails a ‘substantial benefit.’ In addition, Wahl’s employment with the company meets the criteria of ‘association.’

Wisconsin State Statute 19.59(1)(c)2 reads:

“[N]o local public official may: Use his or her office or position in a way that produces or assists in the production of a substantial benefit, direct or indirect, for the official, one or more members of the official's immediate family either separately or together, or an organization with which the official is associated.”

In a Sept. 3 letter to the Star News, Wahl wrote, “Neither I nor my immediate family hold any of the listed positions with the company such that I would be deemed associated with it for purposes of the Code of Ethics.” He refers to Wisconsin Statute 19.42(2), which reads:

“’Associated,’ when used with reference to an organization, includes any organization in which an individual or a member of his or her immediate family is a director, officer, or trustee, or owns or controls, directly or indirectly, and severally or in the aggregate, at least 10 percent of the outstanding equity or of which an individual or a member of his or her immediate family is an authorized representative or agent.”

In a Sept. 3 discussion with the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, counsel stated that it is unknown based on current information if there is a violation of state statute. Noting the issue of ‘indirect’ benefit, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association feels further investigation is required to determine if there will be personal gain for Wahl. They said Wahl’s use of ‘associated’ is a narrow, or literal, interpretation of the statute.

The village of Black Earth’s ethics ordinances go a step further. Under “Standards of conduct for village officials,” ordinance 32-6 D states, “No public official may use or attempt to use his public position to influence or gain unlawful benefits, advantages or privileges for himself or others.”

Village ordinances provide for a procedure for the ethics committee to review possible conflicts of interest upon receipt of a complaint.

On Aug. 7 the village board approved the Community Park project by a 4-3 vote. Trustees Wahl, Matt Kahl, Troy Esser, and village present Pat Troge voted for the project, with James Coyle, Ted Pritchett and Tom Parrell voting no.

The State of Wisconsin Ethics Commission adjudicates possible ethics violations under the statute. The Star News is not filing a complaint at this time.

In the Aug. 15 issue of the Star News, the article said the following: “The village will have to initially pay for the [Communi-ty Park] project and FEMA will subsequently reimburse it for 75 percent of the costs.” This was based on the following e-mail response from village administrator Shellie Benish: “The projects have to be completed and paid for by the Village prior to this reimbursement and meet the requirements FEMA has for reimbursement.”

The village will be applying to the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP). According to FEMA, “HMGP funding is lim-ited; therefore, recipients and local government officials must make difficult decisions as to the most effective use of grant funds. Not all projects may be selected.”

This Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. the village will hold its monthly meeting. At the meeting the board will be voting to approve $925,000 in municipal bonds to fund the project.

 
 

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