Bob Stone is the plaintiff in a significant open records case. He alleges, through his lawyers, that the University of Wisconsin illegally destroyed documents, quite likely after receiving his records request. The UW says these records were duplicates and contained no new information ' a claim impossible to verify due to their destruction.
Last August, Dane County Judge Bill Foust ruled against Stone, saying he 'failed to show that he suffered substantial damage.' Stone appealed, and the last brief was filed earlier this month. An appellate court ruling is expected later this year.
But perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of Stone's story happened in December 2004, several months before his records request. Stone, then a supervisor at the UW Survey Center, found an anonymous envelope in his work mailbox. It contained an odd e-mail exchange between his boss, Steven Coombs, and one of Stone's peer employees, Lisa Klein.
'Oh, yeah...what happened with Bob?' asks Klein, apparently referring to a recent meeting.
'Two hours of fun, friendly banter, a lot of chip-off-the-old-block slow motion punching, laughs galore, knee slapping etc etc,' replied Coombs, the center's director of field operations. 'I can't imagine it being any other way!' He said Stone was getting 'bi-weekly agendas' on his job performance, before ending his message in a jovial 'Yay!'
'Yay indeed!' rejoined Klein. 'But just think of how awesome it will be if we actually ever get him to go away. That will truly be a jimson weed occasion!' Stone's attorney, Aaron Halstead, interprets this to mean: 'We'll have a big party when we get rid of him.'
At the time, Stone had worked at the Survey Center, which does phone research for UW faculty and others, for almost four years. 'All the comments about my work were good,' he says, producing a glowing evaluation from Coombs and associate director John Stevenson in 2002.
By Stone's account, all that changed suddenly and inexplicably in late 2004, just prior to these e-mails. In an affidavit, he reports being summoned by Coombs and 'harassed, berated and harangued for just short of four hours.' This was followed by similar encounters, including the two-hour session to which the e-mail refers.
Stone says he turned to the university's employee assistance program, which he later learned was sharing information with his bosses. He appealed to UW brass and his union and, ultimately, filed a request for relevant records. But, says Stone, 'Every time I tried to defend myself, the attacks got ratcheted up another level.'
In November 2005, Stone was told his contract would not be renewed; six months later he was out of a job. With his union's help, he filed grievances, to no avail. (The union is also bankrolling the records suit, filed after both Coombs and Stevenson admitted shredding documents.)
'We're distressed by the attitude of the supervision here,' says Frank Emspak, president of United Faculty and Academic Staff. 'As far as I'm concerned, this is a classic case of bullying. It appeared to be an orchestrated attempt to drive him out.'
Emspak says the larger issue is the UW's lack of outside review, which 'enables' abuse. 'There's no procedure in place other than going to the people who are [causing] the problem.'
Kris Hansen, a former Survey Center employee who left in mid-2004, likens the workplace to Lord of the Flies. 'It was the worst work environment I've ever experienced in my life,' he says. 'The culture there is to pick a person and attack them for a while, then move on to the next person. When I left that workplace, it felt like I was leaving a ring of hell.' He's 'very happy' in his current UW job, in another department: 'It's like night and day.'
But Stevenson, the associate director, cautions about drawing conclusions based on incomplete information. 'This is a person who made a lot of complaints that have not been substantiated,' he says of Stone, lamenting that he cannot discuss personnel matters. 'It's frustrating not to be able to give a detailed other-side-of-the-story.'
Both Coombs and Klein remain employed at the center. Stone, 49, remains unemployed. He says he's applied for and seemed on the verge of getting other UW jobs. 'Some even showed me where I was going to sit. But when they checked with the university, those jobs evaporated.'
He's there for us all
Embattled state Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi, explaining his role rendering assistance to a man now under criminal indictment for his contributions to Gov. Jim Doyle, has insisted that it's no big whoop: 'This is what I do on a daily basis.' In a letter to The Capital Times, Busalacchi's wife, Robin, elaborated:
'Calls come to the office and to our home constantly ' the need for a bridge or a wider road, better traffic access for a business, a problem with renewing a driver's license, even a pothole in front of someone's house. If Frank doesn't have the answer, he finds someone who does, and if he can't help, he gives a reason.'
Holy highway, Batman. Do ordinary people and groups really enjoy this kind of easy access to one of the most powerful players in state government?
'I've never seen it,' says one longtime Madison transit advocate. 'The transportation secretaries I've seen have tried to be accessible but, by definition, are hard to get to. It would take weeks to get them on the phone.'
Most dealings with the DOT involve lower-ranking employees. Ward Lyles of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin says his group has good relations with the agency and had 'no problem' setting up a meeting with Busalacchi. He adds, though, that efforts to arrange this meeting began in February; the meeting is set for late April.
On the other hand, Busalacchi's home number in Brookfield is listed, albeit under his initials. So there's no reason to doubt his sincere desire to help folk with concerns about potholes and driver's licenses and such. Just give him a ring: 262-781-5781. It's what he does, on a daily basis.
Saving our ash
Good news: None of the 28 city of Madison ash trees felled last month as part of a statewide sweep were found to house the dreaded emerald ash borer, a kind of beetle. 'There was nothing found, so we are okay,' says city forester Marla Eddy, angling for a worthy pun. 'Knock on wood.'
The invader has killed five million trees in Michigan and migrated to Illinois. These efforts have focused on the southern part of the state.
Earlier, city forestry operations supervisor Dean Kahl disputed the wisdom of toppling trees to look for the bugs. But now that they've been found elsewhere in Illinois, he says, 'the freak-out level is a little bit higher.'
In Madison, an additional 28 trees were girdled, to increase their stress level and make them more attractive targets for the deadly beetles, should they appear.
Last Wednesday, protesters making a weekly pilgrimage to the Madison offices of Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl put up a memorial. On an inner office door they taped, with the staff's permission, photos of the 70 state soldiers who have died in Iraq, with their names, hometowns and dates of death. 'They were up when we left,' attests Jerry Tinkle of Coloma.
But Kohl's staff promptly took them down. 'It wasn't something that was going to remain up,' a staffer explains. 'And they were aware of that.' The protesters say that was never made clear.
Kohl supports attaching a March 2008 end-point to a new Iraq war appropriations bill. Tinkle says removing the photos shows how inadequate this is: 'I assume they took them down because it reminded them of something painful that they're not going to do anything about.'
Cry Rape out in paperback
Hot off the presses: paperback editions of a certain local writer's acclaimed book, Cry Rape: The True Story of One Woman's Harrowing Quest for Justice, with a new introduction detailing the local political reaction. The retail price is $19.95, but it's available through Isthmus for just $15, tax included.