Two officials resign amid turmoil in Newburg

Administrator, deputy clerk cite toxic environment caused by fire contract dispute, ethics violation
By 
DAN BENSON
Ozaukee Press staff

The Village of Newburg’s administrator and deputy clerk both suddenly resigned last week, saying they felt unsafe amid a contentious atmosphere in village government that has developed in recent months.

Village Administrator Rick Goeckner and Deputy Clerk Chrissie Brynwood, who also is village treasurer, both submitted letters of resignation on Thursday, May 16, saying they were stepping down immediately.

“It has become apparent that my ideas as to the future of Newburg do not align with the current Village Board leadership,” Goeckner wrote in a letter addressed to trustees, who held an emergency meeting on Thursday to discuss the resignations. 

In her letter, Brynwood wrote: “It is with a very heavy heart that I, Christin Brynwood, ask you to accept my letter of resignation as of May 16, 2019.”

Neither Goeckner nor Brynwood are elected.

In interviews, Goeckner and Brynwood said the atmosphere in village government had become toxic since a contentious debate erupted last year over the village’s contract with the fire department.

“For six-plus years, everything always seemed to be good, but that’s when it seemed to change,” Goeckner said. “Everything seemed to have started with the fire contract.”

“Nine months ago, I felt we were the dream team,” Brynwood said. “For three years I have been dedicated to this place. I loved coming to work. Now I have an ulcer. I absolutely hate it.”

The Newburg Fire Department is an independent agency that contracts with the village and the towns of Saukville and Trenton to provide fire protection.

Last year, both the village and the Town of Saukville complained they were being overcharged by the fire department compared to the Town of Trenton, based on property valuation.

The village eventually agreed to a three-year contract with 1% increases each year. The Town of Saukville signed a one-year contract that includes a 1% increase over 2018. The town is currently negotiating with the fire department on a longer-term contract.

During those discussions between the village and the fire department, then-Trustee Rena Chesak, the wife of Fire Chief Mark Chesak, spoke out during the debate, in at least one case questioning her husband about the contract proposal, ignoring advice from Village Attorney Ian Prust and others to recuse herself from the debate. She did not vote on the contract.

That led to accusations in January that she violated the village’s code of ethics. The Washington County Sheriff’s Office investigated and referred the matter to District Attorney Mark Bensen’s office, which declined to press charges against Chesak.

Meanwhile, Chesak ran for village president and in April was elected over incumbent Jenny Strohmayer, who became president in November after Mike Heili stepped down. Heili is chairman of the village’s Ethics Commission.

Later in April, the Ethics Commission found that Chesak had violated the code of ethics. Trustees are scheduled to discuss what sanctions should be imposed on Chesak when it meets as a Committee of the Whole at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 23.

The issue came up at a raucous Village Board meeting on May 9, with some of the 30-plus people present saying Chesak deserved to be severely sanctioned and others saying she was being unfairly singled out.

Adding to the heightened tension, Goeckner and Brynwood said, was that they felt they came under personal scrutiny, especially from Paul White, who operates a “Newburg Watchdogs” Facebook page. 

The website is limited to current Newburg residents, but in a comment on his personal Facebook page, White says the purpose of the Watchdogs page is “watching local government’s wasteful spending.”

Both Brynwood and Goeckner said White had sat in the Village Hall parking lot for long periods of time, marking their arrivals and departures, trying to build a case, Brynwood said, that the village does not need full-time office staff.

Goeckner said he contacted three police agencies about White’s presence in the parking lot but was told that White was not breaking any laws.

“We both felt working conditions were unsafe,” Village Administrator Rick Goeckner said. “He helped create that atmosphere.”

Brynwood agreed.

“It felt so unsafe that I would lock the door when I was alone” while White was sitting in the parking lot,  she said.

Brynwood said White also had followed her to her home in Saukville.

White did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Goeckner said his and Brynwood’s concerns had not been addressed by village officials, leading to his resignation.

“I had presented to the village president a proposal to create a safe working environment and after two weeks there was no response,” he said. “I figured there wasn’t going to be.”

Village offices were closed on Thursday last week but reopened on Friday with Barb De Luka, wife of Trustee Dave De Luka, temporarily handling office duties such as answering phones and taking messages.

De Luka said the village offices will be open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday unless she has to step out of the office.

The village is working on getting someone “very quickly” to replace her and fill in temporarily until permanent replacements can be found, De Luka said.

“I’ve helped them out before,” she said.

Goeckner said he had been invited to help in the transition but as of Monday had not decided whether he would.

Brynwood’s responsibilities included preparing village payroll. Goeckner said the next pay day is June 1. 

The village has three full-time employees, counting Goeckner and Brynwood, and 12 part-timers, Goeckner said.

Brynwood also has been responsible for sewer and water billing and other accounting tasks, paying bills and other accounting tasks.

De Luka said she is not able to perform those tasks.

The village is reportedly looking into possibly hiring a part-time clerk from one of the nearby townships to help in the transition.

Rena Chesak declined to comment. Village Attorney Ian Prust did not return messages seeking comment.

Both Goeckner and Brynwood said they will be looking for new jobs.

“I had not at all planned at this point to become unemployed,” Goeckner said. “I had planned on being there for some time.”

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