Tammy Peters was just doing her job, taking minutes for the Madison Common Council on July 7. Then something unexpected happened.
"All of a sudden, I saw this big hand coming at my face," says Peters, the council clerk.
The hand belonged to Ald. Tim Bruer, the council's president, who was acting mayor in the absence of Dave Cieslewicz. "He made what I considered to be a very startling and improper gesture at me - a swatting gesture."
The gesture, which Bruer made while seated next to Peters, happened about 31 minutes into the meeting.
"It took every bit of self-composure for me to sit there and do my job and not just walk right out," says Peters, who was unnerved long after the meeting. "I don't think I slept more than two hours that night."
She adds, "I just thought it was inappropriate behavior for someone who calls himself deputy mayor to do during a public hearing." (Peters didn't contact Isthmus about the complaint, but responded to questions about it.)
In the morning Peters told her boss, City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl, who filed a complaint against Bruer. This was investigated but dismissed by the City Attorney's Office, which found Bruer's gesture "neither violent nor aggressive."
In his report, Assistant City Attorney Roger Allen wrote that Bruer, on reviewing the tape, "vaguely recalled gesturing. He stated that he became confused at that point in the meeting and was somewhat overwhelmed by multiple people speaking to him at once. He may have gestured sort of as a 'brush off' to indicate he was confused."
Bruer is reluctant to speak on the record about the matter, except to say that Allen exonerated him. "I'm in sort of an awkward position because it's part of a much bigger problem going on with the Clerk's Office," he says.
Allen's report underscores this point: "It is clear to me that the relationship between certain individuals in the Clerk's Office and the Common Council Office have produced an undesirable working environment" that is hindering "the city's ability to do the public's business in a professional and expeditious manner."
Peters is disgusted with how the complaint was handled. "I will in the future never report something like that again," she says, "because I feel like I was humiliated twice, and told I overreacted."
Late donations broke law
In late March, just before the April 7 election, the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce Direct Givers gave money to three Madison Common Council candidates: $550 to Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, $900 to Hamilton Arendsen and $1,300 to Bridget Maniaci. (Bidar-Sielaff beat Arendsen for an open seat, and Maniaci ousted Brenda Konkel.)
These were "conduit" donations by chamber members passed on by the organization. But donations of more than $500 within two weeks of an election require a special report, which the chamber failed to make.
Delora Newton, the chamber's executive vice president, says the group thought the law only applied to state candidates and "did not intentionally violate campaign finance law."
In an email to Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard, Debra Schmidt of the City Clerk's Office writes that "reporting late contributions, after an election has occurred, circumvents the intent of the law.This information is clearly time sensitive.Any organization can make the claim that the omission was unintentional and thereby avoid reporting pertinent information, in a timely way, that may influence a voter's choice."
While Schmidt does not claim the violation was intentional, an email to Blanchard asks, "[S]hould ignorance of the law exempt violators? If so, who is not exempt?" (For the email exchance, see here.)
Blanchard doesn't plan on taking action, according to his email reply to Schmidt: "This office does not have nearly the resources to pursue intentional violations of the law regularly referred here by police, and so we certainly lack resources to pursue accidental or inadvertent violations."
Unfair fair housing law?
Not long ago, Tim Johnson turned down a man who wanted to rent one of his apartments in Fitchburg because he'd once been convicted of a gun crime. Now Johnson fears his ability to make such choices will be undercut by the county's new fair housing ordinance.
"For decent law-abiding landlords who are trying to have decent tenants," says Johnson, "it makes it more difficult for us."
The revised ordinance, which the County Board will likely vote on next week, has been in the works for years. "The heart of the ordinance is creating a substantial process [through which] the county can pursue housing violations," says Supv. Carousel Bayrd. "We really just wanted to add teeth to the ordinance."
As it stands now, the proposal doesn't prohibit landlords from denying a lease to a person who has been convicted of a crime. But Bayrd is considering adding a time limit for discriminating based on criminal records.
"The idea that individuals who have completed serving their time nevertheless can be denied housing just doesn't make any sense," she says.
Nancy Jensen, executive director of the Apartment Association of South Central Wisconsin, says her group is mostly okay with the ordinance, but understands landlords' concerns about renting to convicts.
"We have a fine line we walk," she says. "If you make a mistake, you increase the liability risk for the other residents."