ONALASKA — Onalaska Mayor Joe Chilsen has added his voice to the calls for Judge John Brinckman to resign from the Coulee Region Joint Municipal Court.
Chilsen said he supported the position of Onalaska Common Council members Harvey Bertrand and Ron Gjertsen, who both have asked the judge to step down in the wake of an independent investigation that raised concerns about processes and oversight at the court.
Asked to respond to the calls for his resignation, Brinckman said that he has no plans to step down and wants to set the record straight about what he views as unfounded allegations about his leadership of the court.
Among the concerns listed in the report that sparked the criticism of the judge was a “lack of organization of paper and files” in the court and Brinckman “not being around” enough to lead the office. The report was presented to the council last month and was prepared by accounting firm Hawkins Ash.
“I think it’s time that we got a judge that can not only mete out justice but can actively manage the department,” Chilsen said, adding that as the officer of the court Brinckman was responsible for the issues around the handling of data.
However, in an interview Thursday, Brinckman said the Hawkins Ask investigation lacked context and a basic understanding of his role. He also said the authors of the report had failed to interview key players, including the municipal court supervisor, Hildie McIntyre. The judge said he was willing to go “line for line” through the report and show that most of the concerns raised in the document were unfounded.
“You’ve got a council that instead of sending out a letter to me and asking me talk to them is asking me to resign based on incomplete and wrong information,” Brinckman said.
The municipal court judge position is part time, Brinckman said, a fact that in his view eluded the Hawkins Ash investigators. He added that it was not his responsibility to ensure data from the court was properly recorded.
But, acknowledging the report had raised some legitimate concerns, Brinckman said data processing has been improved at the court. He said his own investigation into the matter found only 117 unprocessed citations out of the last 10 years.
The three-page Hawkins Ash report was commissioned after the discovery of a number of boxes of unprocessed citations in a basement of the court. Some city officials have put the number of boxes as high as 30, others at six. Brinckman disputes how many boxes were found.
Bertrand, who was the first to call on the judge to resign, said the exact number was not important.
“By observing the mismanagement in handling paperwork, I have no reason to believe what goes on in the courtroom and in private time that should have been performed in preparing for these cases is any less flawed,” Bertrand said last month at a meeting of the Coulee Region Joint Municipal Court Committee.
Bertrand told the common council last week that he felt a responsibility to make his thoughts on the judge public and urged the council to consider taking a vote of no confidence in the judge.
The judge soon will have an opportunity to detail to the common council why he thinks the allegations against him are unfair. Chilsen said he told Brinckman it would “in his interest” to attend and speak at the next council meeting.
Gjertsen pointed, however, out that the judge has always been free to come and speak to the council.
“It doesn’t really make a difference what the judge says at this point,” Gjertsen said. “It’s a job performance issue, and he’s not doing a good job.”
The council cannot compel Brinckman to resign, but, as Gjertsen suggested at Tuesday’s council meeting, it could consider withdrawing Onalaska from the court. Alternatively, a recall election effort could be launched, although Gjertsen said that he would not recommend that path.
The Hawkins Ash report, which cost the city $8,000, involved a series of tests of samples of citations taken from one month in 2015, 2016 and 2017, to see whether they had been properly processed.
Among 153 citations from February 2017, Hawkins Ash found that “some tickets had no follow-up for months after no payment” was received. Seventeen of the citations were missing paperwork, and nine were not properly entered into the software system used by the court. There also were numerous problems with citations sampled from other months in 2016 and 2015.
In a section of the report titled “general comments,” Hawkins Ash noted that “judge oversight (physical presence) is a concern. Hear comments about the judge not being around and didn’t know how he would handle certain things.”
Brinckman ran unopposed for the municipal court judge’s position in 2016, when he was re-elected to a four-year term.