On June 6 Abe Degnan appeared before the DeForest Village Board to discuss the proposed Pinseekers golf complex; eight days later, he filed a complaint against Village President Jane Cahill Wolfgram, accusing her of felony misconduct.
The Village Board does not directly address such complaints, although a motion on the subject could be raised at a future meeting. Criminal accusations would be handled by a law enforcement agency, while claims of inappropriate behavior by a board member would typically need to be taken to the Ethics Committee.
The complaint and accompanying documents were shared by Degnan via email with the DeForest Times-Tribune, Sun Prairie Star, and Cambridge News and Deerfield Independent.
When Degnan spoke to the board, among more than a dozen other appearances on the subject, it quickly became a personal matter. Without making direct accusations, Degnan made several indirect references, such as to when he spoke against the current multi-use development on Innovation Drive.
"Apparently I ruffled some feathers, because as time went on here, I had served continuously for 19 years: first for six years as a village board member and then 15 years on the Board of Zoning Appeals, and the Board of Review, and then suddenly this year, without any discussion or any notice, I was no longer on those things, and it was kind of curious."
The Board of Review and Board of Zoning Appeals are committees including appointed members who meet annually, or less frequently, to review zoning issues. Degnan is president of Degnan Design Build Remodel and president of the Wisconsin Builders Association.
"Are you going to stand by while the people you represent are being bullied, intimidated and smeared?" he asked the board. "In fact I am now subjected to that myself with my professional interests being brought in, when I have made it perfectly clear from all the meetings that I have attended and spoken at that I am here on my own behalf as a citizen of DeForest."
The actions that Degnan was referring to were a call made by Cahill Wolfgram and an email sent by her husband, Steve Wolfgram.
Cahill Wolfgram confirmed that she did, on the Friday morning of June 25, call the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Builder's Association Brad Boycks to ask if Degnan's stated positions on Tax Increment Financing (or Tax Increment Districts) reflected the positions of the WBA, or if he was speaking for the WBA.
Boycks told Cahill Wolfgram that Degnan was solely representing himself in these appearances.
In the July 6 meeting Degnan went on, saying: "I thought it was odd, and then the next thing that happened was last Friday, on a holiday weekend, with this meeting coming up here, with this Monday being a holiday, I received a letter from Steve Wolfgram, who I believe is the husband of…"
"He is my husband," Cahill Wolfgram interjected.
"And that I believe the two of them together operate a PR firm called Cahill Wolfgram Associates, and it is formatted a little bit like a press release," said Degnan.
The email, which is formatted as a formal memo, but not as a press release, addresses "Dear Builders," and goes on to outline Wolfgram's concerns as a developer and supporter of TIF district programs, and Wolfgrams belief in the necessity to use such tools in addressing DeForest's affordable housing shortage.
"As noted in a Wisconsin Builders Association (WBA) newsletter, 'The housing shortage makes it harder for families to afford a home as prices continue to rise.' Yet, the President of the WBA strongly opposes the development of a housing complex that includes a mix of housing types to address a wide range of needs -- on property that is zoned for this use?"
The letter goes on to ask about the Madison Area Builders Association's positions on TIF use, acknowledge Degnan's right to protest and organize a local lobby, and request that a spokesperson from the WBA or MABA attend the subsequent Village Board meeting to publicly clarify the organizations' positions.
In the July 6 meeting Cahill Wolfgram explained that she made the call in response to questions brought to her by local builders. Degnan, in a later interview with the Times-Tribune, said he found it unbelievable that those in the industry would reach out to a village president and not to him personally.
In his complaint, Degnan also claims, "Mr. Wolfgram falsely accused me of an 'anti-TIF posture and his NOT IN MY BACKYARD tactics' (emphasis in original). (See attached Exhibit 3.) As can be verified by reviewing the various recorded meetings where I have appeared publicly, I am not anti-TIF, but rather I spoke in opposition to TIF being used for two particular projects. I also spoke against the increase of TIF incentives within Conservancy Place TID number five."
In a June 22 meeting, Degnan told the DeForest Planning and Zoning Commission:
“...All of this should be happening in the free market without TIF district subsidies to developers and businesses. I stand against district money going to greenfield development. I was in TIF district number one, that was already in place and that was a redevelopment the way that TIF was intended to be used, to redevelop things in the existing communities...Let’s stand up and stand against greenfield TIF district subsidies that do nothing but create false profits for developers and businesses that don’t necessarily need them.”
Discussion of Degnan's personal issues with the Village Board were interrupted when Trustee Colleen Little called a point of order to request discussion return to the topic of development as listed on the agenda. Degnan names Little in the complaint as well, saying:
21. After I was allowed to complete my prepared statement, Trustee Witherspoon began questioning me about the contacts made by President Wolfgram and her husband and to inquire about the nature of those contacts and the effect it was having on me both professionally and personally.
22. Trustee Witherspoon’s questioning was inappropriately interrupted by Trustee Little who called a point of order to stop the questioning of me. Trustee Witherspoon attempted to continue to question me, but President Wolfgram began talking over her.
23. Despite Trustee Witherspoon appearing to still have more questions, President Wolfgram dismissed me stopping any further questioning of me.
Later in the meeting Trustee Rebecca Witherspoon proposed official recognition be offered to Degnan for his service to the village. The motion had been brought at an earlier meeting, but was tabled upon discussion that official recognition by the Village should follow certain guidelines that should be developed to ensure fairness and thoroughness in such actions.
No new guidelines had been proposed in the intervening time, and the motion was brought again before the board. It was defeated on a tied vote, Witherspoon, William Landgraff, and Jim Simpson for, Cahill Wolfgram, Little and Taysheedra Allen against, with Abigail Lowery abstaining.
Two days later Witherspoon shared a post on her Facebook page, Rebecca Witherspoon, DeForest Trustee:
"Look who was honored and recognized by the Wisconsin Senate for his outstanding and exemplary work! Well deserved Abe Degnan! Presented to Abe by Wisconsin State Senator John Jagler himself!"
The post included a smiling photo of Degnan and Witherspoon holding the certificate together. In a comment below, Witherspoon wrote: "Abe Degnan this is how it's done!"
Senator Jagler's office later clarified that the award, which had been planned months in advance, was to the company on its anniversary, and not specific to Degnan himself.
In 2008 the DeForest Village Board passed a resolution, "A Resolution Thanking Abe Degnan for his Dedicated Service to the Village of DeForest." The resolution passed unanimously, signed by trustees Jeffrey Miller, Megan Blount, Jack Sullivan, Paul Blount, Eric Beasley, and Erich Ruth.
When asked the difference between Witherspoon's resolution and his earlier recognition, Degnan could not say, not remembering having received it.