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Marathon County authorizes independent investigation of county clerk’s online conduct; clerk says comments were “misunderstood”

Marathon County Clerk Kim Trueblood
Marathon County Clerk Kim Trueblood((Marathon County photo))
Published: Aug. 3, 2020 at 7:52 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - The Marathon County executive committee has authorized an independent investigation into county clerk Kim Trueblood over posts made in a Facebook group of Wausau parents who objected to the Wausau School District’s decision to open virtually in the fall. The committee met in special session on Monday after Wausau School Board president and 7th Congressional candidate Tricia Zunker called for an ethics investigation last week into Trueblood’s conduct in the Facebook group, which involved comments referring to helping organize protest efforts and help collect information for any potential recall actions “behind the scenes”.

The committee unanimously authorized county administration to retain outside counsel to look into Trueblood’s conduct, specifically into whether “actions or statements made by the County Clerk impact their ability to conduct their duties as an election official in an impartial manner,” according to executive committee member John Robinson. Findings must be returned by the end of the month with recommendations on next steps for the county to take, with costs not to exceed $25,000. While the investigation is ongoing, committee chair Kurt Gibbs says that as hers is an elected position, the county has no authority to alter Trueblood’s work duties.

Trueblood participated in a discussion regarding a possible recall of school board members last week in a Facebook group that has now grown to more than 1,000 members opposing the WSD’s virtual decision. “School board decisions are in the spring,” she wrote in the group. “Due to my position, I have to be very careful with what I support publicly, but I can get info & do anything behind the scenes.” County clerks are the chief election officials for their county in Wisconsin, and oversee all federal, state, local and school elections. The Wisconsin Elections Commission, when reached for questions on how the investigation would impact the primary and general elections this fall, said they were not immediately commenting on the issue.

“Clerk Trueblood’s comments on this post regarding efforts to organize a recall election are unethical and frankly, likely illegal,” Zunker wrote in an email to members of the county board when she called for an ethics investigation, which she said was done in her capacity as a private citizen. “She has offered to ‘get info & do anything behind the scenes’ in regards to a potential recall election. She oversees elections in an official capacity. It could not be more wrong.”

In a statement released Tuesday responding to the investigation, Trueblood said it was unfortunate that the county was spending $25,000 to look into a Facebook post, and said her office was “open and transparent” and that anyone was invited to examine her public record.

“In the course of a passionate and emotional discussion, words I chose to use have been misinterpreted, and that has led to some unfortunate repercussions for my office, my staff, County Board members, my fellow County employees, and the job I love so dearly,” Trueblood wrote. “It is regrettable and heartbreaking that these statements I made have been misunderstood.”

Several citizens have asked that the issue be referred to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission, Gibbs said, but added that he didn’t believe the commission’s authority would apply to local county elected officials.

“That role and responsibility is clearly left to the Marathon County Board, which we take seriously,” Gibbs told NewsChannel 7. “That’s why we’ve authorized the investigation that we have.”

Earlier Monday, Zunker released an official statement on the WSD’s reopening decision on the 27th, which prompted the unrest in the Facebook group Trueblood participated in. More than 700 people in total have signed a petition online advocating for an in-person return to school, more than half of the signatures coming since the WSD’s decision last Monday. The Facebook group, “Parents for Wausau Schools ReOPENING”, has now organized a protest in downtown Wausau on August 8. April Van Rixel, who organized the group, told NewsChannel 7 last week that their goal was to provide a voice to parents who felt they had not been able to be heard in the board’s decision process.

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