A Dane County judge on Tuesday dismissed a billboard company’s lawsuit against the Dane County Board, saying the company hadn’t presented enough evidence to back up its allegations that board members had improperly decided the matter and lined up votes outside the public eye.
In August, Adams Outdoor Advertising sued the Dane County Board over its 18-16 decision in April not to renew a lease of land along Aberg Avenue, on Dane County Regional Airport property, where three billboards have stood since 1966. Adams has owned them since 1987.
Adams alleged that Sup. Paul Rusk, whose district includes the property, violated the state open meetings law and its prohibition on “walking quorums” by emailing colleagues and urging them not to approve the lease renewal. Adams was seeking a new vote on the lease by the County Board.
Circuit Judge Frank Remington said that while it’s important to make sure that government business is conducted openly, he said Adams Outdoor hadn’t given him enough evidence to allow the case to continue.
Dane County filed motions to dismiss the case, and Remington granted them on Tuesday.
At best, Remington said, Adams presented him with evidence that Rusk had contacted eight or nine other County Board supervisors about the billboards, well short of the number of votes that would have been needed to prevail on the day that the board voted down the lease renewal.
Dane County Corporation Counsel Marcia MacKenzie contended that some of those emails were sent during earlier points in the discussion about the billboard lease, which also went through two board committees and the Airport Commission before reaching a final vote before the full board.
Remington also said it wasn’t clear how many even responded to Rusk’s emails, based on the information he had been provided by Adams.
Open meeting guidelines issued by the state Attorney General’s Office, Remington said, state that merely being contacted by another member of a governmental body is not in itself a violation of the state open meetings law, when it can’t be shown that any kind of agreement was reached outside a public meeting.
Had Remington denied the motion, the case would have continued into a fact-finding phase before motions for judgment would be considered. Remington said he respected Adams’ right to have its day in court but added, “I also don’t want to engage in a fishing expedition based only on suspicion.”
The lease ends on Dec. 31. Brian Potts, lawyer for Adams, asked Remington to stay any action by the county to remove the billboards while Adams contemplates and perhaps launches an appeal. Remington set a schedule for an exchange of briefs on the topic and will decide the issue on Dec. 29.
Rusk said Tuesday that he was “delighted” that the case was dismissed, saying the lawsuit contained “baseless personal charges” against him.