Committee selects facilitator to aid in Mequon-Thiensville financial talks

Group must conform to open meetings, records law

Feb. 11, 2014

Mequon — The newly formed Mequon-Thiensville School District ad hoc committee, tasked with finding a way to financially sustain the quality of the district, on Thursday chose noted mediator Howard Bellman to aid them in their deliberations.

Bellman is a longtime mediator who has worked on a number of high-profile negotiations over the years. According to his website, Bellman has worked with the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Education, and Federal Trade Commission; his recent cases include negotiations over the Kalamazoo River Superfund site cleanup, Archdiocese of Milwaukee clergy sexual abuse, and employment discrimination settlement negotiations.

While at least one committee member had qualms about hiring Bellman, saying he has a reputation for being biased in favor of teachers, the consensus among the group was that he has impressive experience and could be dismissed in the event he shows a bias.

"I got the sense that as a process champion, as a facilitator, he would separate those things out," committee co-chair Brian Levy said. "...If we're cognizant that he's got a bent or something, we can filter that out."

Committee avoids resident candidates

The other two facilitator candidates were both school district residents, a deal-breaker in the eyes of the committee.

"They would have a stake in the outcome," committee member Celeste Giunta said. "For them to be neutral would be difficult."

A motion from committee member John Peterburs to select district resident Karen Konrath, a longtime human resources executive, failed on a 8-7 vote with one abstention; a later motion to select Bellman passed with 12 yes votes, two no votes and two abstentions.

Bellman's rate is listed on his site at $285 per hour. Superintendent Demond Means said he has the authority to spend up to $10,000 on a contract, though terms will need to be arranged. Bellman isn't expected to attend the coming Feb. 18 informational meeting.

Talks must be open

Though co-chairmen Jon Safran and Levy have said they would like to occasionally take the discussions behind closed doors, a review of state law suggests the committee's work must follow open meetings and records law.

"As best we can tell, after also consulting with the district's attorney, is that this law does apply to us and that we have to respect it," Levy said, adding that he hopes the dry subject nature of their discussions may occasion a few meetings without attendance from the public or press.

Levy and Safran cautioned the group that their communications related to the committee work are subject to open records law, and that they should not discuss committee business among themselves outside of the public settings as that could constitute a violation of the "walking quorum" rule of open meetings law.

Means agreed.

"The purpose of the law is to say that if you're going to discuss the work of the committee it should be done in public," Means said, "not at Fiddleheads or over e-mail."


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