Decision near in Haass library dispute?
Village of Sussex — Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge James R. Kieffer could decide next week whether the Pauline Haass Library Board has the authority to sue the Town of Lisbon over "control and custody" of about 65 acres of farmland that the late Pauline Haass donated to the town for library purposes.
Kieffer has scheduled a hearing for 9:30 a.m., Monday, Dec. 30 on a motion by the town asking that he dismiss the library's lawsuit. The library is asking Kieffer to order the town to turn over the Haass land to the library board and account for how the town has used other Haass assets.
Lawyers for both sides have filed written briefs to support the oral arguments that they may present during the hearing. Kieffer has several options.
He could issue a ruling immediately as local judges often do or he could delay a decision and ask the library board and town to try to reach an out-of-court settlement of the issue.
The Library Board says state law requires it have "exclusive charge, control and custody" of any assets donated for library purposes.
Town officials for decades have argued that Haass's will clearly indicated she wanted the Town Board to determine how to use the land and other assets for town library purposes.
In addition, the town's attorney has argued that the Library Board does not have the authority to sue the town because the town was one of the municipalities that created the library.
The library was created by a 1987 agreement between the town and Village of Sussex. The two municipalities share most of the cost of the approximately $1 million annual library budget. However, the village is not a party in the lawsuit.
Town Attorney Katheryn Gutenkunst contends that it is "horn book" law in Wisconsin that departments or "subordinate entities" of counties, cities, villages or towns — such as library boards — do not have the capacity to sue or be sued unless there is specific authority given by state law.
A horn book is an early primer having a single page protected by a transparent sheet of horn that was once used to teach children to read, according to Websters Collegiate Dictionary.
Library attorney David Hase thinks Gutenkunst is reading from the wrong legal primer. He argues her legal theory is untested and illogical.
"While it appears that no Wisconsin Appellate Court has addressed the issue of a library board's capacity to sue or be sued, there are cases where library boards have been parties in which the merits (of the cases) have been reached," Hase said, citing cases where there were employee labor disputes involving other library boards in the state.
Furthermore, he argued, the ability to sue is the only method by which a library board can enforce mandates it receives from state law.
"In this case, the board is suing to enforce the powers granted to it by Wisconsin statutes 43.58 and therefore the Town's Motion to Dismiss is without merit and should be denied," he added in a brief filed earlier this month.
It appears that Lisbon taxpayers will be paying legal fees for attorneys on both sides. The Library Board's legal fees will be paid from 2013 and 2014 budgets that depends on tax revenues from the town.
Legals fees for the town may also have to come out of its taxpayer supported annual budget because, at least so far, the town's insurance carrier has said it will not cover the town's legal fees because the library board is not seeking monetary damages.
The legal battle has also derailed negotiations between the town and village over a long-term funding agreement for the library. Town Board members say they will not negotiate over future funding of the library as long as they are being sued by the Library Board.
The Town Board is insisting that Lisbon's share of the annual library costs be reduced because town residents use the library less than village residents.
Library Director Kathy Klager urged the Library Board to consider seeking legal action against the town over control of the Haass land because Town Chairman Matt Gehrke threatened that they town may withdraw from the funding agreement.
Library Board votes authorizing and paying for the legal action have generally been divided along geographic lines with three Lisbon representatives voting against the action and three Sussex representatives voting in favor of the legal action with Kettle Moraine School District representative John Roubik, a Menomonee Falls resident, casting the tie breaking vote.
One exception was when former Library Board Chairman Emil Glodski, a town resident, voted in favor in considering the legal action. The Town Board promptly voted to remove Glodski from the Library Board.
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