City votes to hire attorneys
Most Marinette aldermen want mayor out
Thursday, July 28, 2011 7:06 PM
MARINETTE - The city of Marinette's Personnel and License Committee voted Thursday to hire attorneys in an effort to ensure walking papers are served to embattled Marinette Mayor Bob Harbick.
Throughout the protracted controversy involving the mayor (which began in the wake of his much-publicized drunken driving crash July 2) Harbick has often changed his position and his story related to the arrest and his future as mayor.
But as of late, Harbick has steadfastly indicated that he will not go down without a fight.
That legal fight is now brewing.
Earlier this month, seven of Marinette's nine city council members signed a petition asking Harbick to resign voluntarily. He addressed the council at a special meeting in the days that followed, and made it abundantly clear that he would not step down.
However, those seeking Harbick's ouster are not backing down, either. At a special Personnel and License Committee meeting Thursday at city hall, three of five committee members voted to hire attorneys (one prosecutor and one special counsel representative) to proceed in removing the mayor.
"At the last council meeting, the council told the personnel and license committee to hire attorneys to represent the city in the mayor's case," committee chairman Dave Buechler said to open Thursday's meeting.
Buechler said he has contacted nine attorneys as well as the Wisconsin League of Municipalities - he now has a list of lawyers that deal exclusively with municipalities.
By two 3-to-2 votes, the committee voted first to hire a prosecutor, then to hire a special counsel representative. Buechler said the attorneys were interested in beginning to work on the case immediately.
The two committee members who voted against the hires (Alderwoman Sandra Saunier and Alderman Brad Behrendt) questioned the majority's decision.
"We're talking a lot of money - that really concerns me," Behrendt said.
"I think you're looking at maybe $50,000, and another thing to consider is that the mayor is an employee of the city, and I'm sure he's going to be asking for an attorney that the city - I would feel - would also be obligated to fund."
But according to Buechler, Behrendt's figures might not be accurate, and furthermore, the city would only be obligated to cover Harbick's attorney fees in the event that the council's effort to remove the mayor failed.
Still, there were other money issues.
"Where is the money going to come from?" Saunier asked.
According to Buechler, the finance committee will decide the funding source.
"Most likely it will come out of the city attorney's budget - if there's not enough in there, finance will most likely have to shift funds," Buechler explained.
"We were directed by the council to do it, (hire attorneys), so we're just doing what we were told," Buechler reminded Behrendt and Saunier.
He said he would immediately be contacting the attorneys that the committee just voted to hire.
"I'll be contacting the two attorneys that were awarded and they will start." Buechler said. "They figure it will probably take anywhere from two to three weeks, approximately, to get the witnesses and all of that stuff taken care of."
After the meeting, Buechler was asked why two separate attorneys were needed.
"You need one for a prosecutor, and our city attorney (Jonathan Sbar) has got a conflict of interest, so the council itself needs an attorney to be able to help the council through the process (and the public hearing) - that's what the other attorney is for," Buechler replied.
The public hearing, at which witnesses would be called to testify, will likely take place toward the end of August, Buechler speculated.
"There will be a lot of people testifying, most likely - and as far as I know, that would be an open session," Buechler said.
In terms of the removal efforts chances for success, "the attorneys I talked to all feel that we really have a good, strong case," Buechler said.
"Basically, the council is going to keep quiet about this now, and the attorneys are going to take over - because what happens now is the council is going to be the jury - so we have to keep an open mind and listen to evidence at the hearing and vote on the evidence that we hear.
"At the end of the hearing, there will be a vote taken. If three-quarters of the council would vote to let the mayor go - the mayor would be done."
As for the possibility of one or more alderpersons experiencing a change of opinion or change of heart, Buechler could only guess:
"The accident (Harbick's DUI incident) was basically the last straw ... basically, the citizens that I have talked to have had enough," he said.By CLINTON LANG
EagleHerald staff writer
MARINETTE - The attorneys hired by Marinette City Council will soon be making their way to town to begin piecing together the council's case for removing Mayor Bob Harbick from office.
But it took more than just seven of the city's nine council members to set the mayor's removal proceedings in motion - it took a letter of complaint from a resident taxpayer.
Earlier this month, Dorothy Kowalski submitted that letter, accusing Harbick of five statutory violations - her letter set Thursday's legal wheels in motion.
Kowalski attended Thursday's Personnel and License Committee meeting, at which a successful vote to hire two attorneys was held. She stuck around after the meeting and offered some thoughts on the mayoral controversy.
According to Kowalski, the reasons for her submitting the letter are numerous:
"My role was to get this started, and hopefully city council will be able to take care of the rest," she said. "He (Harbick) indicated that he would resign if the taxpayers felt that way - if the council felt that way - then he backed down.
"His story changed along the way - I don't trust him - I don't think he's a good representative for our community. And regardless of how much time he has left in office (Harbick's term expires in April) at this point, that's not what's important.
"The length that he has left in office is not relevant to me - I don't think that's the issue at all. I think restoring our reputation as a city and making us, I guess, not look like as much of a joke - we need to step forward."
In terms of the predicted financial burden that the city will suffer in pursuing Harbick's removal - it's worth the cost - and it could have easily been avoided, according to Kowalski.
"Yes, I think it is going to cost us, but I think we're going to get a lot of return on the money that was spent - I think that's the most important thing," she said.
Furthermore, the citywide debate over whether the council (and the taxpayers they represent) should proceed is not something that is healthy for the community as a whole, or the city's reputation outside of the immediate area, she added.
"I'm glad they're (city council) going to move forward and get everything out in the open - right now it's all behind closed doors, and 'he did this, and he did that, did you hear this' - it shouldn't be like that.
"You know, we're almost kind of pitted against each other in town, because it's 'do you feel this way, do you feel that way ...'"
Outside of town, the debate over of the mayor's situation is quite similar, she said.
"I was in Green Bay and people told me that they're glad something is being done. One person said 'you (Marinette) looked like you were just going to take it,' that didn't make me feel real comfortable, either.
"I think that there's a ton of support and a ton of info for Harbick's removal and hopefully people will come forward.
"The council members should be able to do their jobs - and he just shouldn't be here," Kowalski concluded.