County says ‘no’ to road claims

BY JAMES KATES / The Capstone

The Jefferson County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday denied more than $13,000 in claims for damage to motor vehicles blamed on county road work, but not before a spirited discussion on whether the county has a “moral obligation” to make things right.

On a voice vote, supervisors opted to forward the claims to the county’s insurer, Wisconsin Municipal Mutual Insurance Co. In nine claims, motorists had asked the county to pay for damage caused by seal coat chips or fresh oil and tar on roads.

Corporation Counsel J. Blair Ward told supervisors that the county has “discretionary immunity” against the claims and can deny any or all of them. Parties who are denied payment can sue, but they must do so within six months.

In any event, motorists can still present any evidence they wish to the insurance company to show that the county was at fault, Ward said.

Supervisor Greg David and a few others said warning signage along some roads was missing or inadequate, allowing motorists to travel too fast and kick up debris.

In particular, they cited Ski Slide Road in the Town of Ixonia, where damage from fresh tar on a Dodge Ram truck generated the largest claim, for $6,687.76.

“I am wondering if we are not culpable for some of that” damage, David said. He asked that the claims be sent back to the Finance Committee for further consideration, but that motion was rejected on a 20-6 vote.

Supervisor Dick Schultz said the county had to be wary of motorists’ claims.

“There is some personal responsibility” for drivers to slow down on roads that are being resurfaced, Schultz said. “I’m concerned that if we waffle on this, we are opening a can of worms for our Highway Department. … I don’t think we can send that message.”

In another cautionary note on the legal front, Ward told supervisors to follow the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law very carefully to avoid even inadvertent violations that could lead to fines.

Ward’s warning stemmed from a case in Winnebago County, where members of two county committees illegally attended meetings of the Courthouse Security Committee for about four years. The Wisconsin Department of Justice told Winnebago County supervisors the practice was illegal, but it did not issue fines or take other legal action.

Supervisors must give 24 hours’ public notice – even if they are attending meetings in which they are not directly involved – if their presence might constitute a quorum of any committee, Ward said. In most cases, a quorum would be three members of a five-member committee.

If three members of a committee show up and no notice has been given, “someone needs to leave,” Ward said.

The law does not apply to social gatherings, but it does apply to any meeting of an educational nature, such as the annual conference of the Wisconsin Counties Association, he added.

In other action Tuesday:

  • Board Chairman Jim Schroeder told reporters before the meeting that the county is actively seeking a representative for District 24, which is composed almost entirely of University of Wisconsin-Whitewater residence halls and other student housing. Finding students to run for election has been a perennial problem, and the county may consider redrawing the district to include some single-family homes, Schroeder said. Anyone interested in being appointed in the interim should contact the county.
  • Schroeder shared a letter from the Government Finance Officers Association stating that the county had qualified for a Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting for 2015.
  • Supervisors approved an increase, from $25,000 to $100,000 per year, in the threshold at which contractors with the Human Services Department must submit a certified financial and compliance audit. State law specifies the $25,000 threshold but says that limit may be raised if the county determines that it would be “burdensome” to small contractors.
  • Schroeder noted that the county budget will be voted on at the board’s meeting on Nov. 14. That meeting is on a Monday, instead of the usual Tuesday.