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OPINION - Call the ethics board

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Wausau's city ethics board should convene immediately. Their charge: to investigate whether an improper relationship exists between Mayor Jim Tipple and local real estate developer Chuck Ghidorzi. And the mayor should reveal, immediately, whether he vacationed at the Ghidorzi's home in Florida.

Wisconsin's ethics law says: "A public official may not accept anything of value if it could reasonably be expected to influence the local public officials vote, official actions or judgment, or could reasonably be considered as a reward for any official action or inaction on the part of the local public official."

Free lodging while on vacation is, without question, something of value. The Mayor knows it. That's why he gave a crafty answer when asked about it by a newspaper reporter. He wouldn't say where he spent his vacation last month. He claimed that wasn't a matter of public record. He was asked if he "paid his own way." His response: "absolutely".

That's not good enough. The mayor holds a veto over every development project that comes to the City Council. Anyone who builds things knows how important it is to have connections in City Hall, and there's no more valuable friend than the mayor. Even if the Mayor and his wife bought their own plane tickets to Florida, there are many areas to investigate. Use of a developer's home, cars, meals and general hospitality are all potential ethics violations. At a minimum, the Mayor needs to produce receipts for his vacation expenses if he was indeed a Ghidorzi guest.

The mayor has said in earlier interviews that where he goes on vacation is not a public issue. That's incorrect. The whereabouts of a mayor in a city the size of Wausau must always be known. What if there was a public emergency while the mayor is out-of-town? Someone at City Hall must know where he is. The mayor is shying away from questions about this vacation because it looks bad. And he's fortunate. In many other states the ethics law contains four additional words "... or the appearance thereof ." If Wisconsin's law rose up to that tougher standard, a vacation with the Ghidorzi family would not pass ethics muster under any circumstances.

Jim Tipple has already telegraphed what his ethics explanation might be. He's been a prominent citizen in Wausau for years. As mayor, he knows all the developers in town. Some of those relationships are personal friendships that go back years.

And as a defense, none of that matters. Suppose the Tipple and Ghidorzi families have gone on vacation years, pre-dating the Mayor's election. The ethical choice is to make different vacation plans during his term in office. Then there's no issue. Instead we're left with questions that demand an investigation. And, aside from whatever the ethics board may turn up, we're also left with the frustration that a city leader doesn't see what the big deal is.

Chris Conley
5.13.14