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Madison City Council member warns of lawsuit in spat with activist, other council members

Madison City Council member warns of lawsuit in spat with activist, other council members

A Madison City Council member accused of a calling a constituent a derogatory name during an online meeting is warning that any action the council takes against him could be subject to a court challenge.

In a Friday letter to city attorney Mike Haas, Ald. Paul Skidmore’s attorney, Joseph Humphrey, references Haas’ past concerns about a possible open meetings violation by a majority of council members as one reason any action the council takes against Skidmore could be tossed.

Humphrey also asserts that a formal complaint filed by the target of the alleged slur, local activist Shadayra Kilfoy-Flores, failed to follow state law.

Humphrey’s letter is the latest salvo in an ongoing dispute between Skidmore — the council’s most outspoken advocate for Madison police — and the overwhelming majority of council members and activists who want to see major changes to and more oversight of Madison’s historically well-regarded police department.

The dispute stems from an incident in the early morning hours of Sept. 2, during a council meeting conducted via Zoom. Skidmore allegedly called Kilfoy-Flores a slur commonly aimed at women just as Kilfoy-Flores was set to testify on a measure before the council to provide money for Downtown businesses to repair damage associated with Black Lives Matter protests over the spring and summer.

Skidmore, 9th District, denies saying the word; Ald. Rebecca Kemble, 18th District, says it sounded like him. The incident happened just after the council had voted to approve the creation of an independent police monitor and civilian oversight board, and Skidmore was the last one to speak before Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway called on Kilfoy-Flores to speak.

Video of the person who said the alleged profanity did not pop up in the Zoom meeting when the word was spoken, and no one in the meeting reacted to the slur at the time it was uttered.

The incident spurred Rhodes-Conway and City Council President Sheri Carter to issue a joint statement later on Sept. 2 saying that “over the past few months, the culture and civility of City Council meetings have drastically deteriorated, culminating in what appears to be the use of gender-based profanity addressed at a member of the public.”

Fourteen members of the council shot back the next day with a statement denying that there has been any broader deterioration of civility and calling on the person who uttered the alleged slur to come forward. They called on the council to conduct an investigation if the person didn’t.

The day after that, Carter sent another email to her colleagues on the council in which she called out Kemble for allegedly uttering expletives critical of Rhodes-Conway and her supporters, and Ald. Max Prestigiacomo, 8th District, for a “profanity-laced” post on his personal Facebook page that “incited violence and resulted in numerous calls from residents for his resignation as well.”

The post was a repost of a flyer critical of police in the days after Jacob Blake was shot by a Kenosha police officer.

Finally, on Sept. 17, Haas sent council members a memo warning them against issuing joint statements because such actions could violate the state’s open meetings law.

Skidmore says the potential open meetings violation is one reason any action taken by the council to investigate him could be voided. The other is that Kilfoy-Flores’ complaint “does not meet the technical language of the statute” that sets out how a council member can be removed or otherwise disciplined for misconduct.

“Mr. Skidmore is left in the unenviable position of either one, accepting a (City) Council resolution to authorize an investigation approved in violation of the Open Meetings law and based on a legally insufficient complaint and endure the continued public smearing of his name, or two, he can assert the interests of government transparency and legality and appear to be quashing an investigation into his own conduct,” Humphrey wrote.

The council is set to vote Tuesday on whether to call a quasi-judicial hearing on Kilfoy-Flores’ complaint. Humphrey said “no decision has been made regarding filing a lawsuit in this matter.”

Haas said he would be responding to Humphrey’s letter prior to Tuesday’s council meeting. He declined further comment.

Photos: See damage from June 23 protests near the state Capitol

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