Nickolaus says she's 'here to help' the Town of Waukesha

Michael Sears
Former Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus, shown at a 2011 news conference to explain problems with vote counting, is the town's new clerk-treasurer and is running for a seat on the Waukesha County Board.
Published on: 3/25/2014

Town of Waukesha — When Kathy Nickolaus was named the town's new clerk-treasurer, it generated plenty of online chatter and buzz throughout the area.

Waukesha Town Supervisor Joe Banske said he received many calls — even some from outside Wisconsin — on the town's decision.

At the core of the hubbub is why the town would hire Nickolaus, who drew statewide criticism in 2011 for not including about 7,500 votes from Brookfield in a hotly contested Supreme Court race, as well as failing to post election results online and update them periodically for the public in a timely manner during an election in April 2012.

But with the town in need of a clerk-treasurer, after its last two resigned over the last few months, the town hired Nickolaus at a special board meeting last week.

Nickolaus' first full day was Friday, and she will have more than a week under her belt before Tuesday's general election that features two contested supervisor races in the town.

"It's a temporary position, and I'm just here to help and get them through the election," she said in an interview Monday morning, adding that Chief Inspector Betty Padgett is actually responsible for running the election.

Nickolaus, who noted she has administered 39 elections over her career, including for 10 years as Waukesha County clerk (2002-12), said she wasn't aware of any negative feedback.

"I have not had any voters come in and talk about their concerns," Nickolaus said. "I've had residents come in and thank me."

When asked to respond to concerns residents might have, Nickolaus said: "I'm not sure what contacts the supervisors have had, but I've only had pleasant connections with residents."

Nickolaus, who is also seeking a seat on the County Board on April 1, said she doesn't have any interest in the clerk position long-term and will only stay on until May 1.

How she was selected for the position and the process in which it took place during the nearly two-hour Town Board meeting took many twists and turns.

Jeanne O'Brien was the town's clerk-treasurer for just a month, before she abruptly resigned to become the deputy clerk-treasurer in the City of Delafield. After her resignation in the town, a meeting was called for March 18.

Town Chairman John Marek suggested appointing assistant clerk-treasurer Eryn Baudo. Banske and Supervisors Larry Wolf and Mike Laska were against it.

"I like Eryn; she's a hard working person," Banske said. "But she has never run an election. She doesn't know how to test the machines. She doesn't know how to do the end-of-night activities. She is a rookie, at best, in this area. She has a stated fear of our financial system. This is a person that doesn't want the position. We are putting a person in a position where she doesn't have the tools to be successful, when we can alternatively put in somebody with vast knowledge and immediately impact the situation in our office."

Nickolaus, whom Banske communicated with the previous weekend and was not at the meeting, is this person, he said.

"She has a talent and skill-set," Banske said. "To me that puts the town in the best light. There is quite a valuable option."

But Marek and Supervisor Brian Fischer had a problem with Banske's option.

"So you want the person that's responsible for two messed-up elections in the county to run our election," Marek said. "Most of the people in this room have never met her, and we've never interviewed (her)."

"We are plowing new and unprecedented ground for the Town of Waukesha by proposing to hire someone that at least some of us have never met or talked to," Fischer said. "It makes no sense to me."

Banske countered: "To say she has any impediment to being effective in the execution of our clerk-treasurer position is a disingenuous comment. She's well-qualified, and can handle this position easily."

Despite receiving a 3-2 vote in her favor for a salary of $32 an hour, she texted Banske saying she would turn down the position unless there was a consensus among board members. Banske said the board should work toward a consensus and called Marek "close-minded."

The meeting recessed when Town Attorney John Macy called Nickolaus to see if he could change her mind, saying the board would still support her. Marek and Fischer said they supported Nickolaus in an assistant role to Baudo. Nickolaus then texted Macy with a response saying she would prefer to be a consultant to the clerk-treasurer if she couldn't get a unanimous vote.

"We're bickering over a title," Banske said. "We have a solution that's there for the taking. ... The question is do we feel that Kathy Nickolaus is able to assist Eryn. Do we feel that she's capable of giving that direction. If the answer is yes, the title is of no concern. She's not interested in a title. She's willing to help but it isn't worth it to her."

The meeting got heated between Banske and Marek after Banske asked what the hangup would be in giving Nickolaus unconditional support. Marek expressed concern that the board never interviewed Nickolaus and accused Banske of sneaking around.

"You surreptitiously snuck around, negotiated with her and decided that you were going to hire her," Marek said.

"I take offense to your slants and innuendos and your cheap a** shots," Banske fired back. "Knock it off. I didn't surreptitiously do anything. I called her because our clerk quit. I tried to solve another problem created by you."

Marek responded by blaming Banske for the former clerk-treasurer leaving.

Marek again suggested hiring Baudo, but because Nickolaus had already been approved, even on a split vote, Macy told them they can't have two clerks.

The board appeared to be at a stalemate because supervisors couldn't come to an agreement over who would be the town's clerk-treasurer if Nickolaus continued to turn down the position.

"You can continue to sit here and not have a solution," Macy said, "but that's not in the best interest of the town."

After another recess and another Macy-Nickolaus phone conversation, Nickolaus agreed to take the job, despite the 3-2 vote.

"I was made aware that the full board wanted me to come, and it was more of a process issue," Nickolaus said when asked why she changed her mind. "When they asked me, I felt obligated."