Cambridge Village Board members and village staff expressed broad consensus on Tuesday, May 11, that a committee tasked with moving ahead from recent failed area referendums to expand the fire and EMS station should open its meetings to the public.
Cambridge Village Administrator Lisa Moen said that under Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law, the Building Review Committee of the Cambridge Community Fire and EMS Commission needs to properly notice its meetings and open them to the public unless it specifically lists on its agenda a statutorily allowed reason for closure.
Moen told the village board she “would view (the committee), yes, as a governing body,” subject to the Open Meetings Law because it’s responsive to the fire and EMS commission that funds area fire and EMS services with local taxes.
The fire and EMS commission voted unanimously on April 29 to create an 11- member Building Review Committee after 3 of 5 area referendums to expand the station failed on April 6.
The 5 referendums, that aimed to split the $6.5 million cost to roughly triple the size of the station on West Main Street in Cambridge, failed in Cambridge, the town of Oakland and town of Christiana and passed in the village of Rockdale and town of Lake Mills. The five municipalities share the cost of area fire and EMS service, based on their equalized values, via a long-standing intergovernmental agreement.
The Building Review Committee expects to meet twice a month into late summer or early fall, and to then bring a recommendation to the fire and EMS commission that would also need approval from all five municipalities. Its members include village and town elected representatives who don’t currently sit on the commission, fire and EMS department heads and citizens at large.
In an email obtained by the Cambridge News & Deerfield Independent, Cambridge Fire Chief Terry Johnson on Tuesday morning, May 11, shared with committee members an agenda for their upcoming inaugural meeting, that he said was set for Thursday, May 13 at 6 p.m. at the station, 271 W. Main St.
“Again, this is a working meeting and not open to the public,” Johnson wrote.
Cambridge Village Board member Kris Breunig, recently appointed by the village board to sit on the new committee, said in a lengthy email response to committee members late Tuesday morning, that was shared with the newspaper, that he objected to the meeting’s closure.
Breunig also sought a series of documents regarding the station expansion project, saying committee members need those to have an informed discussion. And he asked that the May 13 committee meeting be postponed to a different date, and that new agenda be publicly posted.
“The Building Review Committee is a government body under state law. Therefore, I vehemently object to our meetings not being open and public and not being properly noticed according to Wisconsin state statutes,” Breunig wrote.
Fire and EMS commission chair Eugene Kapsner, in a response to Breunig Tuesday night, May 11, shared with the newspaper, called his requests “a great start to open discussion on options for the station, adding that “much of what you’re asking for will be presented at the meeting on Thursday.”
Newspaper’s responseCambridge News & Deerfield Independent Managing Editor Karyn Saemann also objected to the May 13 meeting being closed and not properly noticed, saying in an email to Kapsner, shared to others, that the newspaper “respectfully demands that per that law and for the sake of general transparency that the public be allowed to attend to hear the full discussion, and that all of the committee’s meetings be open going forward.”
The newspaper additionally in its May 11 email asked for an explanation as to “who determined this should be a closed meeting, and why.”
Kapsner, also chair of the Oakland Town Board, argued in a subsequent response to the newspaper, copied to others, that the committee isn’t subject to the state’s Open Meetings Law.
“The committee is not a governing body but a committee to make a recommendation to the commission. The representative from each municipality will give a report at each of the municipal meetings and at the monthly commission meeting. There will be minutes taken at each committee meeting that will be shared with each municipality at their monthly meeting and can be shared with the public as well. That should suffice for transparency and complying with open meetings laws,” Kapsner wrote.
Kapsner characterized the May 13 meeting as “a work session by a committee to explore various options for the station. Surely you can understand that much work needs to get done, without interruption, at these meetings.”
Going forward, “there will also be tours of neighboring facilities which would get quite cumbersome if there is a large group,” Kapsner continued.
In a May 12 email to committee members, shared with the newspaper, Johnson concurred that “work meetings will help provide an opportunity for the committee to stay focused and uninterrupted during their committed time.”
Village Board responseThe village board didn’t formally take a stance on May 11. But all but one board member said they believe the Building Review Committee meetings should be open and transparently posted.
Village Board member Ted Kumbier was the only one not of that mindset.
Kumbier said he was fine with the committee meetings being closed. He also said limiting distribution of the meeting agenda to committee members was adequate posting, adding that he didn’t expect significant decisions to come out of this first meeting.
“They are not going to talking about money or anything, at this point,” he said.
“They are asking for input from the committee, but not necessarily the public, and I don’t have a problem with that,” Kumbier continued.
That prompted a terse exchange with Breunig.
“Why would you not want input from the public, Ted?” Breunig said.
“We are trying to get something done. (The public) can come to the commission meetings and let their thoughts be known,” Kumbier responded.
Other village board members and village staff said the meetings should be open.
“This is public dollars. I don’t see why this would not be talked about in open session,” Village President Mark McNally said.
“I just don’t understand why you wouldn’t be transparent with this building subcommittee, especially since the referendums failed in three communities that this fire commission is a part of,” Breunig said.
Village Board member Carla Galler questioned who is making calls on things like closing the committee’s meetings and setting an agenda, when the committee has not yet met and thus has had no opportunity to name a chairman.
“That’s really not the kind of transparency that you want to start out with after not having your referendum pass,” Galler said.
“I completely agree, it definitely needs to be in open session,” Village Board member Eric Wittwer said.
Village Board member Wyatt Rose also said the meetings should be open.
Breunig said he took those comments as a directive.
“I am remiss to go to a meeting that is not going to be open to the public, and I am hearing from my board that it should be open,” Breunig said.
Moen also expressed concern about an outline of the committee’s work, which expects it by the end of the second meeting to update the desired square footage of the expansion project and update the budget.
“I don’t know who prepared this. Did the fire commission name a chair?” Moen said. “What is the subcommittee’s role here?
Village Clerk/Treasurer/Administrator Barbara Goeckner said in her opinion that distribution of the May 13 meeting agenda to just the committee “would not qualify, under the Open Meetings Law, as a posting.”
Kapsner said in his May 11 email that a small group of commission members and fire and EMS department members have “had many Building Committee meetings over the past 5 years without a problem,” that haven’t been publicly noticed.
Cambridge village board members and village staff on May 11 also questioned the legality of those past meetings, including a series of closed-door, un-posted sessions apparently held since April 6 that have involved Devin Flanigan, a representative of design-build firm Keller, Inc., that has been hired for the station expansion.
The fire and EMS commission, thus far, has only paid Keller, Inc. $1,500. The remainder of its fee is not due until the station expansion project is approved by the 5 municipalities and construction moves ahead.
“There have been questions raised over the past year about that committee meeting, and it not being publicly noticed,” Moen said.
In a May 12 email to committee members, shared with the newspaper, Flanigan’s tone was welcoming, extending “a very important thank you for everyone for making the time commitment for this very important committee. I’m genuinely very excited to kick things off tomorrow evening!”
“The idea/concept of this committee is to start fresh with new points of view, new ideas, and energetic individuals who are up to (helping make a difference) for the future of the Cambridge Fire & EMS. I truly believe that this group will make a monumental impact on the fire department, EMS department and each municipality,” Flanigan wrote.
Flanigan also outlined the committee’s upcoming work, which he said will be “focused on taking a few steps back and looking at the broad picture of why we are here, the project goals and diving into the deficiencies of the current aging facility.”
Cambridge village officials on May 11 also expressed concern about a decision announced on May 11 to increase the size of the committee from 11 to 13 members, with two more community at-large members.
McNally questioned who made that call.
“We agreed to 11 members,” on April 29, McNally said. “I will be asking questions because I didn’t know about this.”
McNally said he planned to show up at the May 13 meeting, and said he intended to “voice concerns that this is not meeting the open meetings requirements. If they refuse to allow me to attend I will inform the newspaper of the relevant code sections that have been violated.”
May 13 Letter
And in a May 13 formal letter to Kapsner, shared with the newspaper, McNally said he was “concerned with the process and conclusions reached by you and certain individuals of the Cambridge Fire and EMS departments with regard to the Building Review Committee,” including the “absence of notice,” of the May 13 meeting and it being closed to the public, and the number of committee members being increased.
“Please inform me of exactly how many meetings have been conducted by you on behalf of the Cambridge Community Fire and EMS Commission since the April 6, 2021 spring election. I have not been provided any notice with the exception of the April 29, 2021 meeting and am extremely upset to feel that the village of Cambridge and I have been kept in the dark,” McNally wrote, adding that “these actions continue to show a cavalier disregard for all of the residents served by the Cambridge Community Fire and EMS as well as the departments personnel. I trust that you can do better.”
Kapsner did not immediately respond to a request from the newspaper for his thoughts on McNally’s letter.