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Waukesha BID board leadership survives no-confidence vote

Sept. 04, 2012
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By Laurel Walker of the Journal Sentinel

Sept. 04, 2012 0

Waukesha - Leaders of the downtown Waukesha Business Improvement District disregarded calls for their resignation Tuesday, despite what some members described as failed leadership and a scathing tell-all letter about them released by departing executive director Meghan Sprager.

In the end, the board rejected, 9-3, a statement of no-confidence in Board President Norm Bruce and Vice President Lynn Gaffey.

However, the board also rejected Bruce's suggestion that he, Gaffey and other Executive Committee members oversee day-to-day operations of the BID office during transition to a new director. Instead, the board voted 11-1 to have Stephen Kassens, a board member who had been considered for president last year, oversee the transition along with Bruce and board treasurer Ron Lostetter.

"I don't think we've ever had in the history of the BID such a difficult situation as this," said board member and downtown developer and property owner William Huelsman.

He suggested Bruce and Gaffey resign their offices, but not their board membership, and that Sprager stay on for at least six months to continue managing the affairs of the district, which supports business retention and downtown improvements through a self-taxing arrangement.

Bruce and Gaffey did not address the calls for resignation. However, they supported the use of a committee for the transition and to consider whether Sprager or the other full-time employee who is also leaving Saturday, John Ward, should stay on.

The board spent about 80 minutes behind closed doors to discuss the resignation Sprager submitted last month that will be effective Saturday. She had intended to leave for another job, but she said Tuesday the offer has since been withdrawn once the BID controversy erupted, in part because she accused the BID board of creating a hostile, uncivil and bullying work environment - without naming names.

Before Tuesday's closed session, Sprager distributed a nine-page letter that outlined problems she had specifically with Bruce, owner of Martha Merrell's Books, and Gaffey, owner of Almont Gallery. Among other things, she said Gaffey made "untruthful passing comments about me having a relationship with Shawn Reilly and threatened my job."

Reilly is the past president of the board when Sprager was hired but he was not reappointed to the board last year by Waukesha Mayor Jeff Scrima.

Sprager's letter also said Gaffey was the person who asked her where she parked her car just days before her car was keyed in an act of vandalism. In a bizarre twist, Sprager said the mayor attempted to make Ald. Roger Patton the culprit by identifying him as the one who asked Sprager where she parked her car.

"What is truly fascinating about all of this is that Mayor Scrima would go to such great lengths to divert people away from the fact that one of his appointees, and a person that received a key to City Hall, could be involved with this matter," she wrote.

"Now, please note that I do not believe that Lynn Gaffey sought out and keyed my car herself. I am well aware of the people that she manipulates into doing her dirty work as they are the same individuals that plotted to call my husband to falsely tell him that I was having an affair," she said.

Sprager also accused Gaffey of complaining about her co-worker Ward's job performance in sweeping downtown streets while advocating that Gaffey's husband take the job.

Gaffey called that accusation "a total, blatant lie" and that she "never" suggested it, noting "it would be a conflict of interest."

As for rumors of an affair, Gaffey said she was only warning Sprager with a "heads up" that the rumor was being circulated by others.

"Apparently no good deed goes unpunished," she said. "All this, and for free, too," referring to the volunteer status of board members.

Gaffey said she was surprised by Sprager's claims because "she never came to me" with concerns. "Ninety-five percent I totally deny," she said.

Sprager's letter also relayed a pattern of strained communications between Bruce, after his appointment by Scrima, and herself. For example, she said he failed to communicate basic information needed for operations, like language for agendas. In addition, she said many staff hours were devoted to projects that developed in discussions between Bruce and Scrima - from the GuitarTown public art project earlier this year to installing new sign banners throughout the downtown.

Bruce declined to comment because he said he hadn't read the letter. However, during Tuesday's meeting he said that despite the character assassinations laid bare Tuesday, the board had not determined the truth of the matter.

In his call for Bruce's and Gaffey's resignations, Huelsman said, "I do think Norm and Lynn have failed to create an environment where a professional director can operate." Referring to a split in the board over whether downtown streets should be closed for special events like the Friday night summer-long concert series, he said. "The leadership needs to provide cover for the professional." Otherwise, the professional manager gets beaten up by both sides.

"I think that's what happened here," he said, noting Bruce's and Gaffey's support of street closures. "You have interjected your personal objectives in an attempt to direct the executive director to support a point of view, and that view is not popular among a majority of the board. I see that executive director is in an impossible position."

"Norm, I don't want you and Lynn to be mad at me for the next 10 years," Huelsman said. "It's just that I can't ignore the fact that we have gotten to this point through a failure of leadership."

Board member and lawyer Jess Martinez said he didn't think the board had reached the point of no confidence in Bruce or Gaffey, and that Bruce's term as president would be up in two months. That might be the time for new leaders, he said. Board member Jim Taylor, owner of People's Park bar and restaurant, said he agreed with a delay until at least November.

Downtown property owner and board member Christine VanderBloemen was the sole vote against the ad hoc committee of three to run BID offices during the transition to a more permanent solution.

"I'm just so sick of everybody putting off important decisions," she said. "We're bleeding and you don't want to stop the bleeding."

About Laurel Walker
Laurel Walker covered local, school and county government for 20 years -- the last half of that at the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel -- before she was named Waukesha County columnist in 1997. Today she writes about the people, places and events around metropolitan Milwaukee with a broad suburban focus. She was the youngest of nine children raised on a central Wisconsin farm before leaving the nest for journalism studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a masters degree at the University of Oregon. She has spent the last half of her life in Waukesha County, where she and her husband raised two sons. Though she has a fondness for life in Waukesha, she eagerly partakes in the culture of the big city to the east and the recreation of the forests to the west. With sons in the arts, she has a special fondness for symphonic music concerts and art museums. She finds peace in a good book at a Northwoods getaway weekend, adventure in family visits to the east and west coasts, and satisfaction in a column well-written that reaches readers.
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