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Does proposal mix police with politics?

July 22, 2014 | 03:19 PM
WILLIAMS BAY — If it isn’t broken, why fix it?

That was the question residents and some trustees posed to the Williams Bay Village Board on Monday as it considered creating a police commission.

Under the proposed ordinance put forward by the village board’s building, zoning and ordinance committee and the protection committee, the commission would be a five-member board appointed by the village president with the consent and approval of the village board.

Village Board President John Marra, who supports creating the commission, took some heavy verbal hits from residents and especially one village trustee.

Some accused Marra of a power grab, or an attempt to shape the police department the way he wants it.

Up for first reading before the board, the proposal brought enough opposition that the board voted not to accept the first reading of the ordinance and to send it back to the building, zoning and ordinance committee for further discussion and study at next month’s committee of the whole meeting.

Trustee George Vlach had some angry words for Marra.

Speaking as a resident during public comment, Vlach called the proposed commission “ill-advised” and said it was being fast-tracked for approval with as little public input as possible.

Vlach also accused Marra of proposing the police commission because one of his relatives received a parking ticket, that Marra wants one of his friends appointed police chief after the current chief retires, and that Marra also wants to “get rid of” Lt. Laura Washer, currently the second in command at the police department.

Later in the meeting, Marra denied that he had any desire to influence the police department.

“My integrity is everything to me,” Marra said.

Marra said that, based on his years of experience as a police officer and as a police chief, he believed it best the village have an independent body in control of police hirings, promotions and disciplines, including firings.

“I’m trying to remove myself and village board politics out of the police department,” Marra said.

Vlach also read an email from Mary Roth, a former village board trustee. Roth also worried that an appointed police commission would take authority away from the elected village board.

“If it’s not broken, why fix it?” Roth asked through her email.

That became the rallying cry for those who are initially opposed to the proposal.

Vlach said he was suspicious of the proposal because it came through a joint meeting of the building, zoning and ordinance committee and the protection committee, which met on a Tuesday morning.

Discussion of most ordinances and resolutions go through the village board’s committee of the whole.

Scheduled on the first Wednesday after the first village board meeting of the month, the committee of the whole is a joint meeting of all the board’s committees to openly discuss and make recommendations on village ordinances, resolutions and business. Vlach said the Tuesday morning meeting precluded a large crowd showing up to hear about the proposed ordinance.

“Committees have been manipulated and backroom meetings have been held,” Vlach charged.

Vlach, a former police officer who used to chair the protection committee, was removed from his seat by Marra and sent to the water and sewer committee.

Vlach said he was removed from his protection committee appointment because he opposed Marra’s proposal to create a police commission.

Also speaking out against the proposal were former trustee John Grove and former village president and trustee Don Weyhrauch.

Trustee Marsha Engquist joined Vlach in opposition to the commission.

William Duncan said that while the commission proposal might have been an attempt to stifle politics around the police department, it generated enough political issues that the board should send it back to committee.

Right now, most interactions between the village board and the police department are through the board’s protection committee, which is also involved in the hiring of police officers and police chiefs.

If a disciplinary issue comes up, the village forms a three-member police committee, with the members appointed by the village president and approved by the village board.

The proposed ordinance would create a commission of five citizens of Williams Bay, appointed by the village president with the approval of the village board.

The commission would then handle disciplinary actions and the hiring of police officers.

The commission would be separate from the village board.

By state law, a village of 5,500 residents or more must have a police commission.

Williams Bay has about half that.

Trustees David Jameson, James Killian and Greg Trush support creating a police commission.

They argued that the commission establishes rules and formalizes police hiring and firing, something for which the village now has no written guidelines.

Marra also argued that, instead of injecting politics into the police department, the whole purpose of the police and fire commission is to remove politics from the police hiring and firing process, he said.

“I’m usually a happy camper with Williams Bay government … I’m happy with the police as well,” said Trush. On the other hand, Trush said he saw a police commission as “a set up for good government.”

Former trustee Don Parker was the last to speak. He suggested that a middle road be found.

Creating written rules for the promotions, hirings and firings of police personnel is a good thing, and the village should do that.

Then the village could follow the rules of a police commission without taking the controversial move of creating one.


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