For the third time in a row, the DeForest Village Board has seen public comments devolve into shouting and personal accusations stemming from public statements from Abe Degnan.
Degnan, President of Degnan Design Build Remodel, and President of the Wisconsin Builders Association, appeared before the board requesting a formal complaint be filed with the Village Board of Trustees Ethics Committee.
Degnan has been a regular participant at recent village board meetings, often speaking, as a resident of Conservancy Place, against the proposed construction of the now in-progress mixed-residential development on Innovation Drive across from the DeForest Athletic Complex, and the Pinseekers golf complex planned for the area between River Road and Interstate-39.
On July 6 Degnan appeared among a line of residents speaking on the subject of the Pinseekers development project, quickly moving into an accusation of harassment by Village President Jane Cahill Wolfgram, based on her reaching out to the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Builders Association to ask whether Degnan’s statements reflected positions of the WBA. Degnan also told the board that he felt he was inadequately and belatedly informed that he had not been reappointed to positions on the Village Board of Review and Joint Review Board.
On July 14 Degnan composed a formal complaint against Cahill Wofgram, based on the points brought up in his previous appearance, escalating to a claim of criminal misconduct by Cahill Wolfgram, which he distributed to board members and members of local media.
Although Degnan did not personally appear in that evening’s special session meeting, Trustee Rebecca Witherspoon asked that his statement be read into the record aloud for attendees. Cahill Wolfgram informed attendees that the document had been recognized and was being handled by staff.
“I’m here to address a request to the Ethics Committee for a complaint of President Wolfgram,” Dengan announced at the July 20 meeting. “I have submitted this in writing and I have made revisions to it actually from what was submitted for last week’s meeting, so this is a new copy in front of us tonight.”
Among the new points in the new complaint was an accusation that Trustee Colleen Little inappropriately interrupted Witherspoon by calling a point of order to return to the agenda during the July 14 meeting.
“Despite Trustee Witherspoon appearing to still have more questions, President Wolfgram dismissed me, stopping any further questions,” Degnan wrote in the new complaint. At the time of his dismissal, he had been in front of the board for roughly 15 minutes.
At the July 20 meeting, Degnan launched into a review of his previous accusations, after about four and a half minutes of reading, “I’m going so skip a couple paragraphs that can all be reviewed by the staff, as I have been paraphrasing, but it is noteworthy at point 18…”
As Degnan approached six minutes, Cahill Wolfgram gave a curt, “Thank you Abe.”
“I have more to speak about,” said Degnan.
“We all have it and we can refer it to the Ethics Committee,” said Cahill Wolfgram.
“Yes, I would like to wrap it up to my conclusion,” said Degnan.
Trustee Taysheedra Allen called a point of order saying the three minutes had been allotted, “and we need to stay equitable to people who come and speak.”
When members of the public register to speak in front of the board at meetings, they are asked to fill out a form giving their name, address, issue of interest and provided guidelines for speaking including:
“To ensure that everyone will have an equal opportunity to speak, the following rules will apply: 1. Please contain your comments to no more than three (3) minutes...”
With a raised hand, Witherspoon told the board, “he also needs a moment to wrap up.”
Degnan pressed on: “The form we have outside says three to five minutes.”
Cahill Wolfgram called on Little next with another point of order.
“Who is running this meeting?” Little asked.
“I am,” Cahill Wolfgram answered.
“Thank you,” said Little.
“So you’re denying the trustees their right to question the public again?” asked Witherspoon.
“Yes,” said Cahill Wolfgram.
“Good to know. This is going to be a banana republic then,” said Witherspoon.
Cahill Wolfgram again dismissed Degnan, who remained seated, straightening his documents.
Trustee Jim Simpson asked if questions from board members was part of required procedure, to which Village Attorney Al Reuter clarified that Roberts’ Rules of Order does not address questions from board members in committee or commission meetings.
Degnan, still seated at the front of the room, spoke up again: “Do I not have a right as a resident of this village to address my concerns?”
“You have a right to address your concerns,” said Cahill Wolfgram, “you’ve brought them to us, we’ve thanked you for them, we’ll refer them to the ethics committee, and it’s a private matter now.”
As Degnan remained seated at the front of the room, Cahill Wolfgram double-checked with Reuter that there was no reason not to move on with the agenda.
“Am I able to exercise my First Amendment right to the freedom of speech to my government?” Degnan asked.
“I think you just have,” said Cahill Wolfgram.
Again, Degnan remained in his seat, waiting to continue. Cahill Wolfgram again insisted that the board would be moving on. Degnan insisted “for the record” that he did not feel that he was given necessary time to address his concerns: “I have concerns about my freedom of speech and my First Amendment right to address my government.”
“Thank you,” said Cahill Wolfgram, and Degnan picked up his things and left.
State law has little to say on the matter of who a municipal board is obligated to hear from, but it is an argument that has recently become louder and more frequent, according to constitutional law expert at the University of Wisconsin College of Law, Professor Howard Schweber.
“Members of the public need to have notice of the meeting, its content, and have an opportunity to attend,” said Schweber. “That state law does not, with some very specific exceptions, require that citizens be allowed to participate.”
Exceptions include meetings in which the municipal budget is being discussed and the topic of the creation of tax finance districts.
Where the village board would be in potential trouble is if it were found that application of the rules had been done so to exclude speech from those of a particular viewpoint, that is, meeting rules need viewpoint neutrality. Historical precedents of successful legal challenges on this subject tend to involve civil rights cases in which those speaking for a minority group that have been systematically shut out of public discourse.
A key phrase in much of First Amendment law is “time, place and manner,” in that authorities are within their right to regulate speech as to the appropriateness of those three factors.
“There is a phenomenon in our country right now where the First Amendment has been weaponized and people have a wildly exaggerated idea of what they are entitled to under the First Amendment,” said Schweber. “The fact that you have a right to say something does not mean that other people have to welcome what you have to say or that you have the right to be heard on the terms that you want.”
In 2008, a Virginia man sued the Chesterfield County Planning Commission for his being removed during a meeting, to which the appellate court sided with the planning commission, “finding that Steinburg was removed from the podium and the meeting because he refused to address the only topic for which the public hearing had been opened and because he behaved in a hostile manner that threatened to disrupt the orderly progress of the meeting.”
There was another appearance in the July 20 Village Board meeting after Degnan, from Brian Goodman who had previously spoken against the Pinseekers project. Goodman called in to tell Simpson that he respected his comments and his track record based on available data, and though he did not agree with Simpson’s “yes” vote, he respected Simpson’s work and asked him to “handcuff” Pinseekers going forward.
Goodman went on to address Little: “I recommend you go back and watch the video of yourself during all those meetings,” going on to criticize her body language in meetings, insisting that her posture did not reflect active engagement with residents.
When Cahill Wolfgram interjected to ask what the point of his call was and whether it would be relevant to the agenda, Witherspoon insisted that the board respect his time to speak.
“I could talk for three minutes about the Milwaukee Bucks’ playoff stats,” he said, insisting that the board should receive his “honest feedback for how you all have treated us.”
Goodman went on, “I’m going to start my time back up.”
“No you won’t,” said Cahill Wolfgram, “we’re going to move one. We’re not going to criticize people…”
“Point of order, he was interrupted,” said Witherspoon. “He needs to have his time.”
When Cahill Wolfgram asked him to continue, he went on, addressing Allen this time.
“And this is not mean-spirited, it’s me trying to give you, as trustees, direct feedback, because when you speak, we’re not allowed to open a dialog and that’s what I’m trying to do here” said Goodman. “Taysheedra, I think you had the chance to do something very special and your speech and talk at the end was very heartfelt…”
Goodman went on to quote Allen back to herself, when she said her “heart ached” about our children watching us at the moment, given the deep bitterness of the arguments. Goodman thought that it was good for DeForest’s children to be watching and learning, “so it doesn’t happen again.”