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New Berlin alderwoman reimbursed for defense of ethics claims

Jan. 21, 2013

New Berlin - Alderwoman Laura Karvala will be reimbursed $5,276 for legal expenses tied to what was later deemed to be an unsupported allegation of an ethics code violation.

The Common Council's decision earlier this month followed the Ethics Board's decision on Jan. 3 to dismiss the ethics complaint, which grew out of the council's earlier decision to close Wilbur Drive as a solution to limiting a shortcut access route from Sunnyslope Road to the commercial City Center area.

In a letter to Karvala's attorney, Michael Neuens, Ethics Board chairman said the complaint was not properly verified. Normally, that means that the statement in the complaint needs to be confirmed or substantiated under oath and acknowledged by the people signing the complaint, he wrote.

More than 50 residents of the Glen Park subdivision in Karvala's district signed the complaint. Many of them feared that a permanent closure of Wilbur Drive would funnel more traffic past their homes.

The complaint specified that Karvala, who lives on Wilbur Drive, should have recused herself when the council voted 6-1 to temporarily block the street as a first step to possibly building a permanent roadblock there. It alleged, without any proof, that her property value would go up because of reduced traffic, her attorney, Michael Maistelman, argued.

For paying the bill

State statutes say that elected officials may be reimbursed for reasonable legal fees in connection with actions taken in their official capacities if they prevail, said city attorney Mark Blum. In an ethics complaint, the city attorney represents the city, not the public official.

Alderman David Ament strongly supported the reimbursement request because he said he sees it as not just as protecting one alderman, but all aldermen.

In his view, the complaint was politically motivated to affect the political process, basing that on the fact that no research was done to prove the allegation, Ament said.

If this is allowed to happen to one alderman, it could affect any political decision by anybody - no matter which side loses, the other side could claim an ethics violation, he said.

"It doesn't cost them anything," Ament said, but it costs the alderman or the city a lot of money.

Although the council voted 6-1 for reimbursement, some aldermen were bothered by the size of the bill and that Karvala didn't talk to the council about reimbursement before hiring an attorney.

"It seems to be a whopping bill," said Alderman Dennis Horbinski.

Alderman John Hopkins agreed, but said he isn't in a position to judge whether it's excessive for the work involved. Hopkins added he understands why she got an attorney, noting "Aldermen have to have some protection at times."

Valid process?

Alderman Ken Harenda, Common Council president, also concurred and favored reimbursement, but he said this matter shows that the city needs a process for handling this type of issue beforehand.

Consulting the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, Harenda found that in most cases, permission is asked ahead of time, although each community does it a little differently. He said he will bring a proposed procedure forward soon for council consideration.

Making arguments against reimbursement was Mayor Jack Chiovatero.

First of all, an ethics complaint is different than a lawsuit against an alderman, he said. Secondly, the group which filled the complaint could opt to file another that does meet city requirements.

"What about this (reimbursed) money?" he asked.

Only Alderwoman Deena Liska voted against reimbursement, but didn't say why. Karvala did not vote, and Chiovatero, as mayor, only votes to break a tie.

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