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Aberg Billboards

Adams Outdoor Advertising billboards along Aberg Avenue are the subject of a lawsuit filed in court Tuesday. 

Dane County Board members illegally discussed whether to renew a lease for three billboards that stand on county land along Aberg Avenue near the Dane County Regional Airport, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday against the county by Adams Outdoor Advertising.

The lawsuit over the billboards alleges that Sup. Paul Rusk, whose district includes the land where the billboards are located, violated the state open meetings law and its prohibition on “walking quorums” by emailing colleagues urging them not to approve the lease renewal, telling one of them at one point that he was “trying to do a ‘vote count.’”

Adams is asking a judge to overturn the County Board’s 18-16 vote on April 7 against the lease and order a new vote by the board.

Rusk said he has been told by county lawyers not to comment, saying only that the lawsuit is “without merit or legal basis.”

Dane County Corporation Counsel Marcia MacKenzie also said the lawsuit is baseless.

“If you examine the statutes that are cited in the complaint you will see that the law they cite does not support any of their allegations that any laws were violated,” she said. “That said, we will not comment further, as litigation has commenced.”

In an email to County Board members on Friday, Adams general manager Todd McWilliams wrote that the then-anticipated filing of the lawsuit was “simply a requirement to preserve Adams’ rights to pursue litigation, if we can’t work something out with the board in the next month or two.”

McWilliams said Tuesday that was still the case. All he’s asking, he said, is for another vote by the board, “under the right conditions, without people abusing the rules. We just want to be treated fairly. I don’t think we were.”

Dane County would not be the first local municipality Adams has sued in recent years. In February, a Dane County judge rejected Adams’ lawsuit against the city of Madison that claimed a bike path bridge that blocked the view of one of its billboards was a taking of private property. Adams has appealed. A similar suit against the city of Fitchburg is pending.

Billboard companies have leased space in the area on the north side of Aberg Avenue, on Madison’s North Side, since 1966. Adams took over the billboards in 1987, when it purchased Hansen Advertising. The signs currently in place have been there since 1984.

The last lease expired in December. Since then, various county government committees have approved a new lease, in which Adams agreed to pay the county $35,000 per year or 28 percent of gross revenue from the billboards, whichever was greater. Revenues go to the Dane County Regional Airport.

Then on April 7, the County Board voted down the new lease.

Adams has not had to take down the billboards because it says it still has a “holdover lease” that extends the existing agreement until Dec. 31. The county, however, told Adams that it needed to take down the billboards by July 29, the lawsuit states.

The county allowed Adams to keep the billboards up through December after Adams threatened to sue, according to the lawsuit.

In the meantime, Adams requested and received records that it says show that the County Board’s vote was “tainted” by violations of the state open meetings law and by some board members’ personal bias against Adams.

Rusk, in particular, urged colleagues to vote against the new lease for Adams, the lawsuit states. “Based on the email correspondence received, it appears as if Mr. Rusk was lobbying as many supervisors as possible to ensure that the Dane County Board voted down the successor lease,” the lawsuit states.

Rusk created a “walking quorum” of enough board members to violate the state open meetings law, Adams’ lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also claims that Rusk was biased against Adams because as executive director of the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin, he was dissatisfied with advertising obtained from Adams in 2008 and 2010 and expressed that dissatisfaction to board colleagues. It also accuses Rusk of incorrectly telling colleagues that the current neighborhood plan advocates removing the billboards when it does not.

Sup. Dorothy Krause, who is also a member of the Fitchburg City Council, also took part in the vote and the email discussions, the lawsuit states, even though Adams has a lawsuit pending against Fitchburg over a bike path bridge that blocks one of Adams’ billboards on Highway PD.

Krause and Rusk should not have voted on the lease, the lawsuit states.

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Ed Treleven is the courts reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.