Scott McDonell began the meeting by stating that the matters under review could lead to litigation and anything said "can be used in court." It was the public-hearing equivalent of a Miranda warning.
That was not the only admonition: McDonell, the Dane County Board chair, also explained that all questions would have to be screened and some could not be answered. This was followed by a stern lecture from Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard, stating that any leaks of information about the details of the 911 call from slain UW student Brittany Zimmermann's cell phone, if released, would seriously jeopardize the task of bringing her killer or killers to justice: "Our odds decrease with every new week."
With these restrictions in place, it's no surprise that the May 8 joint committee meeting of the Dane County Board Public Protection and Judiciary Committee and Personnel and Finance Committee -- called in the aftermath of allegations that this call was mishandled -- did little to enlighten.
The only witness, Joe Norwick, fielded questions about center staffing and steps taken in response to a critical 2004 audit. But as for the Zimmermann case and the underlying issues it presents, almost nothing in the way of new information was provided.
Norwick said he agreed with the apology extended by County Executive Kathleen Falk to Zimmermann's family and fiancé, and offered one of his own -- for misleading the media during last week's press conference. But when he was quizzed on this point by one of the County Board supervisors in attendance, he returned to his default mode of resolute equivocation.
Last week, when asked if the 911 dispatcher who officials say mishandled the call remained on the job, Norwick told reporters that she had been "working as usual" and that nothing had changed. In fact, shortly after this incident, she transferred to another county job.
At the meeting, Norwick insisted he had answered truthfully when asked if she was still a county employee ("yes") and whether she had been put on administrative leave ("no"). Was it his fault if people misunderstood?
When Norwick was asked whether Madison police told him not to talk about Zimmermann's 911 call, he again set out to deceive. He mouthed some platitude about how he had been a law enforcement officer for 29 years, the implication being that this was something he didn't need to be told.
Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, asked last week whether the cops asked the 911 center not to reveal this call, had a different answer: "No."
None of the supervisors seemed to pick up on this, just as they never seemed to stop asking questions had already been asked. Mostly they asked silly softball questions like, "Should the public continue to have confidence" in the 911 Center? (No, people should panic, and take to the streets.) "We're trying to help you, you know that," Supv. Dennis O'Loughlin assured Norwick.
When someone asked about the sounds on the tape, McDonell interjected: "No, we're not talking about the content of the call." When another questioner said he was surprised the dispatcher was not placed on administrative leave, Dane County Corporation Council Marcia MacKenzie erupted, "That's not a question we can answer." It wasn't even a question.
When someone asked whether a return call to the wrong party had gone to the town or city of Middleton -- what difference could it possibly make? -- Blanchard jumped in, saying he did not want this question answered. Later, the supervisors and media were given copies of Norwick's heavily redacted 40-page incident report, which makes no effort to hide the fact that the call went to the town.
Guess the chances of cracking this case have diminished some more.
Supv. Eileen Bruskewitz asked why Falk was not at the meeting: "Is there anything more important?" McDonell, probably appropriately, declared her question out of order. Replied Bruskewitz, "This looks like more of a cover-up to me."
It was a cheap shot, and no doubt politically motivated. But it may have been the most truthful statement made all night.
Note: County Supv. Mark Opitz, who asked the question about whether the callback to the wrong number went to the town or city of Middleton, has contacted Isthmus to explain the motivation behind his query.
Opitz, who represents the city of Middleton on the County Board, says he asked this question as a prelude to a point he was hoping to make. The city of Middleton, he notes, operates its own call center to receive and dispatch 911 calls, and Opitz wanted this made clear "in case there is a public trust issue" as to how these calls are handled.
"I wanted an awareness that not all calls go to the county's 911 Center," says Opitz. He never got to make this point because Brian Blanchard objected to his prelude question being answered. And then, notes Opitz, "20 minutes later" board members were given a redacted copy of Norwick's report that reveals this information.