July 16, 2008

DA: No Charges Against Holmen in Star Hill Land Sale

By Dan Springer, La Crosse Tribune, Wis.

Jul. 16--Holmen, Wis., officials did violate the state's open meetings law while working on the controversial Star Hill land sale this year but will not face charges because the sale also was discussed in open session, the La Crosse County district attorney said Tuesday.

The Holmen Village Board did fail to specify as required that its closed session March 13 would be on selling the Star Hill parcel to the Holmen Lions Club, county District Attorney Tim Gruenke said in a letter to the head of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. But those violations came during preliminary talks with the Lions Club, Gruenke said, so they did not jeopardize the board's May 6 vote in open session to sell the hilltop site that has a large, illuminated star and cross to the Lions for $600.

In a June 30 letter, the Madison-based foundation asked Gruenke to prosecute the village board for violations, claiming the board did not properly notify the public about land sale discussions, held improper closed sessions and did not consider the foundation's $1,200 offer to purchase the site.

Village officials discussed the Lions Club's offer at three March meetings. The agenda for each meeting stated the board would go into closed session on a property acquisition but did not indicate the site, Gruenke said.

But Village President John Chapman did say in open session at the March 13 meeting that the Lions Club had filed a letter of intent to purchase the property, Gruenke said.

Village officials agreed after that meeting to properly notify the public of any action on the property -- which they did, Gruenke said -- so he saw no need for prosecution.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said she was not surprised Gruenke took no action against the village, but she was pleased he acknowledged the violations.

"This is the documentation of our claims and gives us ammunition for our intended lawsuit," Gaylor said. "It doesn't negate anything. It's very helpful."

Gruenke's letter also makes it clear the board did not discuss other purchase offers, either in open or closed sessions, which violates state law as well, Gaylor said.

Dan Springer can be reached at (608) 791-8269 or [email protected]


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