Ethics Board Dismisses Complaint Against Opitz

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By: 
Kevin Murphy

MIDDLETON–The City of Middleton’s Ethics Board last week dismissed a five-count complaint brought against Mark Opitz, city planner and zoning administrator, by an opponent of airport expansion stemming from ongoing issues with the Middleton Municipal Airport-Morey Field.

The complaint filed on Dec. 20, 2019 was the first the approximately year-old board ever considered.

It alleged that Opitz:

• Lacked transparency and or truthfulness regarding developing a survey of potential airport users;

• Accepted gifts in the form travel at reduced fares from owners of Capital Flight, an airport-based ,private business;

• Misused the city’s listserv email system to advance his pro-airport expansion agenda;

• Shared information with Capital Flight owners which he withheld from the airport manager;

• Had an angry, intimidating conservation with the complainant, Leslie Hayner, after a Middleton Common Council meeting.

The Ethics Board’s unanimous seven-page decision, written by city attorney Larry Bechler, dismissed each count brought in the 14-page complaint supported with 339-pages of exhibits.

In February, the board asked then Human Resources Manager Melissa Bohse, to make an initial determination whether to proceed in an open session due process hearing to resolve factual disputes between information in the complaint and information gathered by Bohse.

Bohse took statements from Opitz and Alder Emily Kuhn, a witness to Opitz’s alleged angry conservation with Hayner, but not the two witnesses Hayner identified, according to Hayner.

Kuhn refuse Hayner’s request to recuse herself from hearing the complaint as a non-voting member of the Ethics Board.

After Bohse found no factual disputes to resolve, the board didn’t conduct a due process hearing in open session. Instead, in May, it met in closed session to consider the complaint and the information Bohse gathered. On June 10, the board met again in closed session, returning to open session to announce it reached a decision which City Administrator Mike Davis released on June 13.

The complaint specifically alleged that Opitz helped orchestrate a second survey to include pilots in surrounding states that would result in more support for lengthening the airport runway. The second survey followed an initial survey of current airport users which indicated their satisfaction with the existing runway’s length.

The survey was added to the draft airport master plan still being developed by consultants Mead & Hunt, Inc. However, revelations about the data sources was questioned by Hayner and other others in the Airport Master Plan Advisory Committee meetings, prompting Mead & Hunt to remove it from the draft master plan.

In dismissing the allegation, the board decided that the Airport Commission and not Opitz had solicited the second survey. Also, the “lack of integrity” on Opitz’s part that the complaint alleged is not an enumerated violation of the Ethics Code and isn’t sufficient to warrant further action, according to the decision.

Opitz’s social relationship with Jade and Matt Hofeldt, owners of Capital Fight, was the subject of two allegations, and prompted the only cautionary statement from the board.

Opitz shared emails he received about airport operations with Matt Hofeldt that he didn’t share with Rich Morey, airport manager. That caused Airport Commission Chair John Hallick last summer to suggest to city administrator Mike Davis that Opitz should be removed from Airport Commission meetings and replaced “due to the perception of Mr. Opitz working on behalf of Capital Flight,” according to the complaint.

The decision advised that public officials should avoid even the appearance of “impropriety” and that while Opitz’s “judgment may have been poorly exercised in sending the emails,” that act isn’t considered a violation of the ethics code.

The decision also noted that Opitz’s email sharing only with Hofeldt was cause to bring personnel action against Opitz, which Davis has completed.

In an emailed response Monday, Davis wrote that he and Opitz’s supervisor Abby Attoun, director of planning, have counseled Opitz but declined to elaborate stating that personnel matters are confidential.

The board concluded that Opitz didn’t receive any discounted fares from the Hofeldts while traveling on junkets with them.

Hayner contended that Opitz improperly used his public official status on the Access Dane website to find out where Hayner lived. Opitz told Hayner that he knew where she lived, which Hayner found intimidating as she set her property ownership information to “private” on the website. However, the board treated the “private” information as a public record, according to Hayner.

The board found Opitz to be “brusque and unpleasant” toward Hayner during a boisterous discussion after an August 2019 common council meeting and should have walked away from the confrontation, but it didn’t find it an Ethics Code violation.

On Monday, Hayner said the board treated Opitz’s conduct as merely “misunderstandings or just unsavory behavior.”

“It is unfortunate, however, that the (board) passed the buck to Mike Davis by asking him to treat several issues as simple personnel matters. They seemed to have felt that none of the claims fell under their purview or rose to the point of being an ethics issue. I'm having trouble, however, figuring out what that threshold would be, if not the types of things I describe in my complaint,” Hayner emailed in response to a reporter’s request for comment.

Punishment for violations of the Ethics Code include suspension, removal from office or employment or other disciplinary action. 

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