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County agrees property complaints must be open, pays $255 to settle case

The St. Croix County Planning and Zoning Department has settled a lawsuit by agreeing to discontinue a policy of refusing to identify persons who make complaints about others' property.

Under the agreement finalized in November, staff agreed to allow Mark Brosi to review Planning and Zoning records related to property owned by his father, Lynn Brosi, 648 County MM, River Falls, without blacking out names of people who complained about the property.

The department also agreed to "discontinue the prior blanket policy" of refusing to release records that might disclose the identity of a complainant. The county agreed to pay Mark Brosi $60 for his out-of-pocket expenses and his attorney, Andrea Olmanson of Madison, $195 for her expenses, including filing fee, postage and photocopying costs.

The odd thing about the case, said St. Croix County Corporation Counsel Greg Timmerman, was that while both sides assumed the Brosi file contained names of people who complained about the property, it didn't.

"That was the irony of the whole case," said Timmerman. "There was the assumption that there was a complainant (named in the file), when in fact there wasn't."

"That's what we were to learn after the litigation had commenced," agreed Olmanson.

Often in cases like this there is no complainant on record, Timmerman said, because neighbors report their concerns to town officers, who pass them on to the county.

The county paid the costs because that was all Brosi and his attorney asked for -- that and that the records be more open to the public, said Timmerman.

"We actually have the same political ideology regarding this," explained Olmanson. She said both she and Brosi feel that at a time when all levels of government are running deficits, "...taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for litigation like this."

She said her client's goals were to gain access to the complete file and for the department to change its policy.

"The file hadn't been active for a long time," Timmerman added.

He said he believes the conditions that led to the actions against the older Brosi have been corrected.

"I understand that it was Mark that actually helped resolve the issues," said Timmerman.

He speculated that because the file had been inactive for so long, staff now in the office hadn't worked with that case, weren't familiar with the people involved and didn't know Mark Brosi.

Still, said Timmerman, that is not an excuse for not allowing the man to look through the file.

Olmanson said she suspected zoning staff wasn't deliberately stonewalling Brosi but may just have been ignorant of Wisconsin's open records laws. She said she didn't know why Brosi waited until now to try to access the file.

Timmerman said Planning and Zoning Department staff members have been encouraged to contact the lawyers in his office if similar issues arise.

The Brosi file in the Planning and Zoning Department contains numerous photographs and copies of a series of letters from county workers to Lynn Brosi, urging, and in many cases praising, his progress in cleaning up his farmstead.

Although the early correspondence warns of possible legal action if the property isn't cleaned and the records show frequent contact with town of Troy officials, no complainant is named in the records opened to a reporter.

In the first entries, dated March 2003, a zoning worker says the department has received complaints about the property and that apparently the house had burned down the previous summer and the owners were rebuilding.

That entry indicated there were many vehicles and lots of debris on the property but doesn't say who complained.

The file contains a series of letters from zoning workers to Brosi in each year from 2003 through late 2007.

Notations in the file also document the removal of batteries, tires and other debris.

Mark Brosi, 654 Swedish Mission Road, River Falls, filed a civil court complaint in September alleging that Code Administrator Kevin Grabau and Zoning Technician Daniel Sitz allowed him to review documents, including photographs of the property and letters to the corporation counsel, but refused to let him see any complaints that had been made.

In his complaint, Brosi said he was told his request was denied because "the policy of the St. Croix Zoning Department was that no complaints would be released because there was nothing to say that the requestor would not then go 'blow up' the property of the person complaining."

Brosi said he went to the office in person during business hours but was repeatedly told to come back when Sitz was there.

He said when he finally did meet with Sitz, he was told the names, addresses and phone numbers would have to be removed from the file before Brosi could read it.

"There is no public policy supporting secrecy for zoning complaints," said Brosi in his civil suit. "A complainant in a zoning complaint matter is not the equivalent of a confidential informant in a tax evasion or drug dealing conspiracy matter, for example."

He insisted that the identity of a complainant must be disclosed to the target of the complaint and that there was "no rational basis" for refusing to provide the information to him.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.