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August 05, 2014 | 03:27 PMWILLIAMS BAY — Technically, the question of whether Williams Bay needs a police commission is one of policy, to be settled by the Williams Bay Village Board.
But practically speaking, that issue has become a personal one as Village President John Marra and village board Trustee George Vlach sparred before the village board and in the press over what the commission would do and why Marra proposed it in the first place.
At the July 21 village board meeting, Vlach stepped down from his village board seat and took the podium during the public comment period alleging that Marra’s proposal to create the commission was his attempt to gain control of the village police department.
A number of citizens, including former village trustees and former village president Don Weyhrauch also spoke, claiming that a police commission is not necessary in Williams Bay, and that the appointed commission would take away powers and accountability from the elected village board.
Several residents who spoke at the July meeting said they feared the proposal was a “power grab” by the village president.
On Monday, Marra responded by categorically denying Vlach’s accusations.
Vlach was not at the meeting, his absence listed as excused.
He characterized Vlach’s comments as a personal assault against himself and members of the village board.
“My personal and professional reputation came under attack by village Trustee George Vlach during an apparent and strategically planned and orchestrated assembly during the scheduled village board meeting of July 21.”
He added that Vlach’s actions and words were intended to “interfere with the legal and ethical authority of the board of trustees to act upon village matters” because he is personally opposed to the proposed police commission.
Marra said that Vlach’s comments were made “to discredit me, possibly for removing him as chairman of the protective services committee.”
In an interview with the Regional News, Vlach said he had not heard about creating a police commission until it was discussed and recommended during a July 15 joint meeting of the board’s building, zoning and ordinance committee and the protective services committee. It then came up for approval at the July 21 village board meeting.
How was it the trustees agreed so quickly and the ordinance was drafted in time for the following village board meeting, Vlach asked.
Vlach said he suspected that some discussions took place outside the committees and a possible walking quorum was involved.
A walking quorum is defined as a series of meetings, telephone conferences, emails or some other means of communication in which groups of less than a quorum discuss and create concensus on policy outside a legal meeting.
State law forbids walking quorums.
However, proving a walking quorum falls on the person making the charge.
In response, Marra said Vlach was attacking the integrity of his fellow village board trustees.
He called it “an unwarranted, unjust, cruel and ill-advised utterance.”
Marra said one of the reasons he wants to establish a police commission is because he believes the current department may be top heavy in command personnel. The department has a chief, a lieutenant and a sergeant.
Marra said the lieutenant’s position, currently held by Lt. Laura Washer, is costing the village $92,000 a year out of a budget of nearly $1 million. That position is the most recent, having been created by the village board in 2006. He said the village fire department needs about $100,000 for essential safety equipment for its firefighters, but the village doesn’t have the $100,000.
“I cannot accept that salary structure in our police department,” Marra said.
Vlach accused Marra of personal animosity toward Police Chief Robert Pruessing and Washer and that he wanted to get rid of them.
Vlach cited a 2011 incident, in which Washer issued Marra’s wife, Halina Marra, a parking ticket.
Marra said the ticket was legally written and it was paid in full.
He said he has nothing personal against Washer and cited his support in sending her to the Northwestern University’s police command academy, which was conducted in West Allis earlier this year.
“I fully supported her then, and I fully support her now,” he said.
The friction between Marra and former village president Weyhrauch has also played a part in the controversy.
Marra defeated Weyhrauch for village president in 2011. The two men have acknowledged that they don’t like each other very much.
Weyhrauch would often visit the police station to drink coffee and visit Pruessing, who is a personal friend, Marra said.
Marra said that as village president he does not enter the police department, except on business. He asked that the chief end the personal visits by Weyhrauch.
Apparently, those visits have ended, Marra said. Marra said he and Pruessing “enjoy a cordial relationship.”
He then asked Pruessing, who was sitting in the audience, what he considered their relationship as police chief and village president.
“Professional,” Pruessing replied.
Marra asked Washer, who was also in the audience, whether he had shown any animosity toward her.
Not all of Washer’s response was audible, but she said no. Marra also pointed out that the lieutenant’s position was approved by the village board during a special meeting April 26, 2006.
Marra asked Weyhrauch, who was in the audience, if he could explain why a special meeting was needed to approve the lieutenant’s position.
Weyhrauch shook his head.
Williams Bay resident Bill Patula got up at the closing public comment and warned that the police commission issue was descending into the “politics of personal destruction.”
That happens when politicians who disagree on public policy attack each other personally, rather than debate the policy.
Patula indicated he is not a fan of Vlach and he likes Marra, but he asked the board not to resort to personal attacks when discussing the police commission issue.