What began as a social media frenzy accusing Merrill City Administrator Dave Johnson of wrongdoing over the handling of storage items at the Merrill Festival Grounds two weeks ago, is now headed for an official, independent investigation.
Following debated discussion during Wednesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, city council members voted 6-2 (4th District Alderwoman Kandy Peterson and 5th District alderman/Council President John Burgener opposing) to pursue an outside investigation into the matter.
The issue involves Johnson granting permission for a private individual from outside the county to remove items from the Schultz Building at the Merrill Festival Grounds. The items had been stored there by Lincoln County and other entities prior to the city taking ownership of the grounds from Lincoln County last year. While no one seems to have a detailed list of what was stored there, or what was removed, the items did include doors and table that originally came from the Lincoln County Courthouse. Arrangements have reportedly been made to have the items returned.
The matter began July 25, the day after the Lincoln County Fair closed. Fair Association member Brian Severt said he encountered Merrill Fire Chief Dave Savone and two other men in the Schultz Building. He later saw them leaving with a trailer load of items that had been stored in the building. He related that Savone told him that Johnson had given permission to remove the items.
Severt took photos of the trailer load of items and posted them on Facebook, questioning whether they should be taken out of Lincoln County.
“For some reason I felt I should take a picture of the truck and trailer,” Severt said.
Johnson later said he felt the items were in poor condition and had little value. Because the building was being prepared for demolition, he allowed the items to be removed.
“When the City of Merrill took over the Fairgrounds from Lincoln County it included the Schultz Building.” Johnson stated in a letter to council members. “This building is the oldest structure on the grounds and is definitely in the worst condition. This building is to be demolished to make way for the new Enrichment Center/Expo hall. The second floor of this building was used for decades to store ‘stuff’ that wasn’t being used. When we (the city) acquired the building which we have now owned for 13 months, no one expressed any interest in the items stored there with the exception of county Maintenance Director Pat Gierl, who asked if the county could continue to store some items upstairs until their new storage building was completed. No mention was made of what actually belonged to the county. I assumed what belonged to the county was merely five cases of barricade flashers.”
Severt said the fact that the person who took the items drove seven hours round-trip from Walworth County to get them, shows they have some value.
“I hope all the items are returned,” Severt said. “This is more than just a misunderstanding.”
The council members’ debate came down to two questions: Whose property was it?; and, How should it have been disposed of according to city code?
Alderman Rob Norton questioned the need for an investigation, on the basis of any wrongdoing having occurred to warrant such.
“The organizations who were storing stuff at the Schultz Building knew we were going to take control of the fairgrounds and tear down the Schultz Building. Everyone knew this, but the stuff sat there. How is this any different from buying a house and finding it full of old furniture?”
Alderman Ryan Schwartzman indicated having been present at Tuesday’s Lincoln County Public Property Committee meeting, during which he said county maintenance director Pat Gierl stated he had entered into a “gentleman’s agreement” with the city to store the items.
“This was public property and should not have been given away,” Schwartzman added.
Lincoln County Administrative Coordinator Randy Scholz characterized the issue as a misunderstanding. Scholz said he felt communication regarding the property, or lack thereof, led to the issue at hand.
“Pat and Dave (Johnson) had spoken,” he explained. “We did have an auctioneer come in last summer and he basically told us those items in the building were really of no value. Whatever was gained wouldn’t even pay for the auction fees and to just throw the junk out,” Scholz explains.
“Pat and Dave (Johnson) had spoken about the items in the building and Pat told him there was ‘stuff’ in the building we still wanted. The stuff would be useful in case any repairs were needed inside the courthouse, due to some of those materials in the courthouse being no longer available. The problem is we didn’t define exactly what ‘stuff’ we wanted. We didn’t give the city a list or anything. It was a case of miscommunication.
“I am under the impression the items are on their way back and when they arrive, will be stored at our storage facility,” Scholz added. “As long as we get back what we want, no harm no foul.”
Alderman Pete Lokemoen said there is no provision in the city code for a city employee to give away items. Even if the city was the owner of the items, there is no provision for a city employee to give them away to a private entity, he added.
“He shouldn’t have done it, period,” Lokemoen said.
Mayor Bill Bialecki noted that when the ordinance regarding disposition of property was drawn up, the city did not have a city administrator.
Alderman Tim Meehean made the motion to order an outside investigation. The city code needs to be interpreted as it relates to this case, he indicated.
“The only way to get answers to this is to have a formal investigation from an external individual,” he said. “Some people say Dave (Johnson) had the right to give away property under $1,000, some people say that’s not what the code said. The only way to get to the bottom of this is to have somebody impartial do an investigation and come back with a report.
“I just think this needs to be resolved and the only way to get it resolved is to have a formal investigation from somebody outside the city and make a report. We should have somebody like (attorney) Dean Dietrich do it. He can interpret the city code.”
Bialecki noted that the city does have money set aside for outside legal counsel that can be used in this case.