Marathon County Executive Committee members voted Monday to move forward with ethics investigation against its county clerk.
Last week, the Marathon County clerk posted the following statement on the Parents for Wausau Schools Reopening’s Facebook page: “School board elections are in the spring. Due to my position, I have to be very careful with what I support publicly, but I can get info & do anything behind the scenes.”
This week, Kim Perdue Trueblood is facing a formal ethics investigation for those words.
Trueblood is the chief election official for Marathon County and conducts all federal, state, county, local and school district elections. She is running unopposed in the November election. Because the clerk is an elected position, committee chair Kurt Gibbs said the county has no authority to alter Trueblood’s work duties while the investigation is ongoing.
On Monday, Marathon County’s Executive Committee met behind closed doors and unanimously agreed the post, and several others that homed in on Wausau School board president Tricia Zunker suggesting she and other board members be recalled for their decision to begin the school year virtually, warranted an investigation.
“Last night, the Marathon County Board Executive Committee voted to authorize an independent investigation into some comments I made on a Facebook page focused on efforts to re-open the Wausau schools,” said Trueblood in a statement. “In the course of a passionate and emotional discussion, words I chose to use have been misinterpreted, and that has led to some unfortunate repercussions for my office, my staff, County Board members, my fellow County employees, and the job I love so dearly. It is regrettable and heartbreaking that these statements I made have been misunderstood.”
Committee members made no public statements following their return from closed session debate. They made a motion and cast votes without discussion.
The committee’s decision directs the county’s corporate counsel to hire a third party, at a cost not to exceed $25,000, to conduct the investigation into whether the statements made by Trueblood impact her ability to hold fair and impartial elections. The results of the third-party investigation are due back by Aug. 30.
“It’s like the wild, wild west up here,” Zunker told UpNorthNews following the committee’s vote to launch an investigation. “She openly admitted she could do ‘anything behind the scenes.’ Anything is not an ambiguous word.”
Zunker, a Democrat, also will be on the November ballot in the race against Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany for the 7th Congressional District.
When asked how she feared Trueblood could “do anything behind the scenes,” Zunker said she is concerned Trueblood could manipulate November election results or absentee ballots could go missing.
“The public needs assurances that when we go to the pools our votes will be counted,” Zunker said. “I want to make sure we have fair and impartial elections and the integrity of our elections is at stake here.”
Gibbs said several citizens have suggested the investigation be conducted by the Wisconsin Ethics Commission. He said he didn’t believe the commission’s authority would apply to local county elected officials.
“That role and responsibility is clearly left to the Marathon County Board, which we take seriously,” Gibbs told NewsChannel 7. “That’s why we’ve authorized the investigation that we have.”
Zunker made the request for a formal ethics investigation on Friday. The request called for a formal resolution condemning Trueblood’s statements, an official censure by the board, a statement of further assurances by the board regarding the integrity of elections in Marathon County, and any other necessary action to ensure Marathon County voters participate in fair and impartial elections.
Zunker said she called for action by the Marathon County Board not as a representative of the school board but as a private citizen seeking to ensure fair and impartial elections.
“I think the words and the screenshots speak for themselves,” Zunker said. “My only concern is that we have an election on Aug. 11 and the report is not due until Aug. 31. It’s also unfortunate we have to waste county money on this unethical action.”
Trueblood addressed the cost of the investigation in her statement.
“I am saddened that my friends and neighbors are spending 25,000 of their dollars to look into a Facebook post,” she said. “I’m sure that upon reflection, we can all point to a time where we might have worded something more effectively to convey our true meaning.”