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July 22, 2019

6/14/2019 4:13:00 PM
City Council pays bills submitted by outside law firm
Kirby suggests mayor, city administrator should cover pre-June 1 expenses
Heather Schaefer and Jamie Taylor
Of the River News

The law firm of von Briesen & Roper is providing legal services to the city of Rhinelander while it is without a city attorney, but alderpersons remain at odds over the process used to engage the firm in investigatory work associated with recent personnel/work environment complaints.

The subject of the city's relationship with the law firm resurfaced Monday when two invoices for work completed in March and April were before the alderpersons for payment.

Council president George Kirby argued that mayor Chris Frederickson and city administrator Daniel Guild should be responsible for paying the two bills with their own personal funds because the work in question was completed before June 1, when the city's expanded agreement with the firm went into effect.

"I make a motion that we not pay these bills because these bills were generated prior to June 1 and therefore they become the responsibility of our mayor and Daniel Guild," Kirby said.

As discussion continued, alderman Ryan Rossing asked attorney Hector de la Mora of von Briesen, who was acting as the city's legal counsel during the meeting, for input.

"I can't give you a legal opinion on my own bills, however I can make an observation," de la Mora responded.

Prompted to share his observation, the attorney noted that his firm has a history of representing Rhinelander with respect to so-called Dark Store litigation (the practice of big box retailers filing lawsuits against municipalities challenging their tax assessments) and bargaining matters.

"Historically, there is an agreement on file that predates June 1," he said. "To the best of my knowledge the information that was billed for relates to personnel matters and as such, as far as I know, our firm performed the work in good faith."

This argument has been made during previous council meetings but there are alderpersons who remain concerned about the arrangement.

"What I'm concerned about is, and I think it's a fact, that von Briesen does not specifically have a contract for any of the employment issues," alderman Lee Emmer noted.

Emmer went on to explain that he understands the city has a history with von Briesen with respect to the Dark Store litigation and bargaining matters. He then noted that the fact that the city has separate agreements with von Briesen related to the Dark Store litigation and the bargaining matter indicates to him that a separate agreement is necessary for the recent investigative work the firm conducted at the mayor's behest.

"That tells me there has to be a separate contract for each thing that's done, otherwise we'd simply have one contract," he said. "We wouldn't need a contract for the negotiations and a contract for the Walmart thing (Dark Store litigation). I'm just worried that if I go ahead and vote for this I'll be contradicting state law."

Emmer then noted that the council did not vote to expand the city's relationship with von Briesen for additional legal services (to cover legal matters until a new city attorney is hired) until its May meeting.

"The reason I voted for it was because it was after May 31 (when former city attorney Carrie Miljevich's contract with the city expired) and now we get bills that are prior to May 31 ," he said. "This casts a shadow really, for me, on everything von Briesen has done if, in fact, they should not have done it because they were not hired by the council."

When asked if the council could face "any adverse legal ramifications" if it pays the bills as presented, de la Mora answered that he doesn't believe there would be any adverse consequences.

He also suggested postponing a decision on the bills until after the closed session on the investigations so the council members could gain a better understanding of the work that was done, but the council ultimately decided to move forward.

Kirby's motion to have Frederickson and Guild pay the bills failed on a 3-4 vote. Steve Sauer, Andrew Larson, David Holt and Rossing voted "no" on that motion.

Immediately after the vote on Kirby's motion, Sauer made a motion to pay the bills as presented.

As the discussion continued, Sauer and Holt noted the council specifically directed the mayor to look into the employee complaints and he did that via the von Briesen firm.

They insisted that questions over the hiring of the firm have been resolved and that a separate agreement covering the investigatory work is not necessary, given the city's previous and ongoing relationship with the firm.

At one point, Emmer interjected that he had intended to ask for the von Briesen bills to be considered separately from a bill for $1,650 submitted by Rick Hermus of Integrated Public Resources for work related to the investigations. However, Frederickson recognized Sauer first and his motion passed on a 4-3 vote.

The two invoices submitted by the von Briesen law firm were included with the agenda packet for Monday's meeting.

The first invoice, dated May 14, covers work completed between April 1 and April 30. The total amount requested is $9,047.50.

The second invoice, dated May 23, covers fees and travel expenses for work completed between March 11 and April 30.

The total amount requested is $6,948.34.

The total of the two von Briesen invoices discussed Monday is $15,995.84.

With the $1,650 paid to Rick Hermus/Integrated Public Resources, the total amount paid by the city of Rhinelander to von Briesen and Roper and Rick Hermus/Integrated Public Resources as a result of Monday's vote was $17,645.84.

According to the agenda, in addition to the public works/hostile work environment complaints and the Guild "no confidence' and "full confidence' letters, the "investigations" discussed in closed session Monday included an age discrimination complaint filed by public works director Tim Kingman (who remains on paid leave) and a sexual harassment complaint filed by alderperson Dawn Rog.

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