Madison Mayor Paul Soglin 

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin is the subject of an ethics complaint alleging that his office began a “deceptive and inappropriate investigation” into a city employee because she disagreed with assessment practices that she said undervalued commercial property.

Soglin denies the allegations.

There will be a hearing on the complaint at a city Ethics Board meeting this Thursday, Feb. 28 at 5 p.m.

What does the complaint say?

The complaint was filed by Laura Doherty, the former assistant city assessor/commercial supervisor.

In it, Doherty writes that she and former city assessor Mark Hanson told Soglin and Deputy Mayor Enis Ragland in 2016 and 2017 that commercial properties were being assessed inequitably.

Higher assessments were then put in place, after which major developers met with Soglin and “attempted to exert influence on (Soglin) to return to the prior poor commercial property assessment practices which greatly benefited them,” the complaint states.

“These same developers are reported to be major contributors to Mayor Soglin’s campaigns,” the complaint alleges.

The complaint goes on to claim that the mayor’s office, along with human resources and the city attorney’s office, started investigating Doherty, “in an attempt to find a way to remove her from a position of valuing commercial properties.”

According to the complaint, the paperwork indicates that her boss, Hanson, instigated the investigation, but Doherty writes that Hanson told her he was not involved. Hanson retired in June 2018.

Eventually, Doherty was demoted from her role to property appraiser, and the complaint says Soglin “has been attempting to find a way to remove her from the City’s employment altogether.” The complaint was filed on Dec. 13 , 2018, and according to the city’s HR records, Doherty was fired on Dec. 31, 2018.

These actions violate state law that require “valuing all real property at full market value uniformly so that the tax burden is borne equally,” the complaint argues.

What was going on with city assessments in 2017?

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, the city assessor’s office drastically increased the value of assessments on hotels and apartments in 2017. At the time, the city said it hadn’t thoroughly examined commercial properties in years and the new higher values were justified.

“It’s a big jump for some of them in one year,” Hanson told the State Journal in 2017. “I’m sure some of them were caught off guard by that, but we needed to get caught up. It’s a big shock, but it’s warranted.”

Seventy-six hotels and apartment buildings appealed their assessments, and the city’s Board of Assessors lowered many, decreasing 26 hotel assessments by a total of $161.5 million and 24 apartments by a collective $79.7 million. Even with the appealed assessments, many properties ultimately saw an increase in their property value.  

What does Soglin say about the complaint?

Soglin didn’t respond to the Cap Times request for comment, but denied Doherty’s claims in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal. He acknowledged that he met with property owners about their assessments and “asked staff to review the assessment methodology but did not intervene in the city’s assessment and appeal process,” the State Journal said.

What happens at the Ethics Board?

Thursday’s meeting is a jurisdictional hearing, which means the board will determine whether the complaint is a violation of the code of ethics in the Madison ordinances, and whether there will be evidence to show that a violation occurred, said Steven Brist, assistant city attorney.

If the board finds that both conditions are met, they will schedule a full hearing, where both sides can call witnesses and submit documents, Brist said.

And if the Ethics Board finds that the ordinance was violated, they report to the City Council and can recommend the council “consider sanctioning, censuring, reprimanding or expelling the elected official,” according to Madison ordinance.

How often does the Ethics Board address complaints?

The last complaint to appear before the ethics board was filed against then-Ald. Sara Eskrich in 2017 alleging that she inappropriately used her position to the advantage of her husband's company; the complaint was dismissed.

The committee mostly does advisory work, considering amends to ordinances that affect the ethics board, Brist said.

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