Legal Editor’s Column: Whoa! Where’s the fire? Spring Green needs to re-visit village administrator hiring

Editor Column

Gerry Strang, esq. , Legal Editor


The Village of Spring Green Village Board met on Wednesday, February 10, and among the actions it took were to create a Village Administrator position, create a job description for the position, fill the position, and have all these actions take effect immediately.


I have no doubt that the Board had good reasons for deciding to create a Village Administrator position. One can go to the websites of the Wisconsin City/County Management Association (WCMA) or the League of Wisconsin Municipalities (LWM) and learn about all the advantages of having a municipal administrator. The Board was unanimous, the public appeared supportive, and apparently the village was nine-tenths of the way to having the Clerk-Treasurer act as a Village Administrator already, without being formally designated. If you’re going to operate in a given way, that should come with a formal decision and not just occur by accident.


But it looks like the Village violated the law here.


Now, I don’t want to make too much of this. You could make an argument that what the Village did ignored the fundamental rules of democracy, that the board members violated their oaths to act responsibly under law, and so on. But let’s be reasonable. The board meant well and village boards violate the laws in minor ways all the time.


Here the violation was the legislative equivalent of speeding. The Village posted public notice that it would be creating a Village Administrator position, not that it would be hiring the administrator. So it acted outside of the scope of notice, and that’s illegal. Moreover, it made what seems like a fundamental change in the structure of village government, which the LWM suggests and the WCMA says directly should be done by ordinance, but there it is not clear that the change was written in the form of an ordinance and passed that way. It certainly would be a good idea for the Village Code to reflect the existence of a major village officer. Ordinances do not take place until the day after publication: they cannot be made effective immediately. And hiring an insider immediately without any chance for others to compete? I think they can do that, but it’s definitely not the normal, time-tested way of complying with employment laws, and I would not take it for granted. Because the Board decided at a moment’s notice to fill the position, they did not consult with the village attorney, and they broke at least one law, probably several.


The village should have slowed down and taken things one step at a time. Publish the notice, give a heads up to the village attorney. This was not an emergency. Village board, you should have paid attention to the speed limit.


So far as I’m concerned, I’ll let you off with a warning. But I would suggest fixing this up by going back and ratifying the action with public notice, and probably placing an ordinance in the village code. Talk with your village attorney. Otherwise, anyone in the state could sue over this and win. They probably won’t bother, but they could. All it takes is one.


OUR VIEW

Spring Green Village Clerk Wendy Crary has been nothing but helpful and wonderful as we’ve navigated covering local municipal government, Spring Green couldn’t find a better Village Administrator. But, for the Village’s sake, revisit the action item and codify the changes in ordinance, while properly noticed at a future meeting.