Attorney Kevin J.T Terry of Ruder Ware Law Firm’s Wausau-branch, has been retained by the city to lead a formal investigation into removal of property authorized by City Administrator Dave Johnson, from the former Schultz Building at the Merrill Festival Grounds.
In what has since been coined ‘The Schultz Building Incident’ occurring last month, Johnson authorized a private individual from outside the county, to remove items from the building. 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 documentation or inventory was ever created as to what was stored there or what exactly was removed, the items did include doors and tables which had originally been brought from the Lincoln County Courthouse.
County officials have since claimed ownership of some of the removed items and have indicated they were unaware the property had even been removed until July 16.
During Tuesday’s meeting of the Lincoln County Board, county Maintenance Director Pat Gierl indicated he had made contact with Johnson on several occasions, following an initial verbal agreement with Johnson last summer.
According to Gierl, Johnson agreed to allow items from the courthouse to be stored in the Schultz Building, pending completion of new county storage facility which was under construction at the time of the agreement. Gierl indicated he had intentionally made repeated contact throughout last summer and fall, so Johnson was aware the county was still interested in the property.
“We continually followed up with the city so they knew we would be coming back for our stuff,” he stated Tuesday night.
“It was an ongoing process, there was a lot of stuff to go through. The city was aware of our property being in the building, as I kept a set of keys to access the building when we were ready to recover our property. When I went to the building on July 16 to recover these items, they were gone. I contacted Mr. Johnson and indicated the property was gone. He indicated he had given the property away.”
Gierl indicated Merrill Fire Chief Dave Savone, who coordinated the removal of the property was coordinating the return as of Tuesday evening. The property has since been returned and as of Wednesday, is being stored at a county owned storage facility.
Last Tuesday the city’s Committee of the Whole discussed the matter at length and ultimately 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.
During discussion, 1st District 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 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. 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.”
Dietrich and Terry are both employed with Ruder Ware and specialize in local government representation and affairs.
Terry has indicated he intends to work with Dietrich in performing the official investigation.
While this is Terry’s first time working with the city, Dietrich has worked with the city on various occasions in the past for outside consultation, negotiations and union contracts.
During an interview with Terry on Thursday, he declined to go into any detail on projected length of the investigation, cost or what exactly the investigation will entail.
He did however indicate results will be turned over to the Common Council upon completion.
“When these types of investigations occur, people want results like yesterday,” he added.
“But I can tell you the investigation will be very thorough and the results will be reported to the city’s Common Council upon completion of our investigation.”
Terry has been employed with the firm since 2011 and has performed several similar investigations in both the private sector as well as local government and school districts.
During last week’s council meeting, Mayor Bialecki indicated the city does have money set aside for outside legal counsel which can be used in this case.