By Michael S. Hoey

Correspondent

Katherine Gaulke, a supervisor up for re-election April 6 in the Town of Delavan, recently filed complaints against the other three town candidates. Gaulke, Mary Knipper and write-in candidate Dixie Bernsteen are vying for two supervisor spots on the board. Chairman Larry Malsch is also running but is unopposed.

Gaulke alleges that Bernsteen has campaign signs in several locations in the town that do not acknowledge who they were approved by or paid for as election law requires. Gaulke submitted several photographs of signs and said after she made Bernsteen aware of the violation, more signs appeared. The only effort Bernsteen made to place an attribution was to add a sticker with her name on it to some signs, which Gaulke said does not satisfy the requirement.

“As Town Clerk, Dixie should be held to a higher standard of knowing campaign laws,” Gaulke said. “As a clerk for 14-plus years, she should have already been aware of the requirements to have a disclaimer. Her blatant disregard for this by adding more signs with no disclaimers demonstrates the intentionality of not having disclaimers on her signs.”

Gaulke said she also heard that Bernsteen – while at Town Hall performing her duties as clerk – has been campaigning and asking people to put a sign in their yard when they come in to pay taxes or other business. That violates campaign law as candidates are not allowed to campaign on town property in general and the clerk, as an elected official, is not permitted to campaign while functioning in her role as clerk.

Gaulke provided several emails she sent to Bernsteen making her aware of the signs violation. She also said Bernsteen reportedly told a town resident that Gaulke “messed up our accounting, it’s a mess, we have to get rid of her.” Gaulke warned Bernsteen to stop spreading false information.

Poll worker complained

Gaulke said a poll worker filed a complaint recently against Bernsteen regarding the 2019 Spring Election. Gaulke said she tried to have that complaint – and some potential changes to how the town conducts elections – discussed at a Committee of the Whole meeting but Malsch refused to put it on the agenda.

Duane Konkel confirmed he recently filed the complaint Gaulke was referring to and said he waited because he trusted that individuals overseeing Bernsteen would take action after he brought his concerns to the board and town attorney following the election. That didn’t happen.

“The bottom line is everyone surrounding this event and these actions of clear violation of campaign laws decided it was not in their jurisdiction to deal with,” Konkel said.

“After 2016 and the cry for fair and clean elections, you would have thought there would have at least been a statement from the Town of Delavan Board to the public to make it clear things like this would be investigated and would no longer happen under their watch,” he added.

Konkel said he was an official poll watcher from somewhere between 4 and 5 p.m. until the end of election night in April 2019. He said he witnessed Bernsteen visibly in attendance for more than just a few minutes at a time. She was interacting with poll workers in full view of voters, greeting voters, interacting with some as they filled out their ballots – sometimes close enough to see their ballots – and asked a voter about money that person owed her personally.

At the end of election night, Konkel said Bernsteen was the one to complete the closeout process with the balloting machine and he heard her make a disparaging remark about a candidate who had won a seat on the board. He said he also saw her open the ballot machine and handle ballots. Konkel said he has not been able to find any statutory language prohibiting a candidate from doing so but it defies logic.

“A candidate for office should never have been involved in the election process,” he said.

Konkel said Wisconsin Elections Commission officials said it was ill-advised for Bernsteen to be in attendance during the election but even they were less than decisive as to how ill-advised. Konkel said he did further research on his own into state election law and believes there was a clear violation.

“Our election process was tainted on that day and will continue to be until actions like these are brought into the light, scrutinized and resolved,” he said.

Bernsteen weighs in

Bernsteen denied most of what Konkel alleged.

She said handling ballots is part of her job as clerk. Bernsteen said she’s responsible for getting the ballots to the polls for the electors, but she did not handle them after, as that is the election inspectors’ responsibility.

Bernsteen said she did not handle the ballots until they were sealed in their recorded numbered bag and she is accompanied by a police officer until they are locked in the clerk’s office where they stay until the next day when they are taken to the county. She said she was unopposed, so had no motive to do anything unethical.

Bernsteen denied talking to voters or electors about debts owed to her but said she may have been seen by voters occasionally as she went to get more ballots from the county or other items elections inspectors need. She said she was behind a curtain for the most part and was present only to provide morale support for elections inspectors or get needed items. Bernsteen said she had a conversation with the Election Commission that morning and was not told she could not do that.

As for her campaign signs, Bernsteen said she recycled signs from when she ran for clerk 14 years ago and admitted she failed to check to ensure the disclaimer sticker was still there. She called it an honest mistake and said she corrected it on as many signs as she could, however, several signs along Highway 50 did not have a disclaimer as of Tuesday morning.

Bernsteen said she knows she’s not permitted to campaign at Town Hall and denies doing so. She said she did have conversations with people who asked her to consider running but the decision took so long she could not get on the ballot and had to run as a write-in. Bersteen said she did not feel it was “electioneering” to talk to people who brought it up.

Malsch mailings issue

Gaulke also alleged Malsch sent out a mailing that had no disclaimer asking residents to vote for him, Bernsteen and Knipper. The copies Gaulke provided confirmed that.

Malsch, who said he was not aware of the complaint when contacted last week, said his letter was no different than letters Gaulke has sent out except his were more personal and not meant for the general population. He said he sent them to fellow American Legion members and some friends and did not know a disclaimer was required for that. He said he did not place any signs or other advertisements he knew would require attribution.

According to Malsch, his letter was entitled “Don’t forget to vote” however, the copy of it provided by Gaulke did show Malsch state he would appreciate the vote and supported voting for Bernsteen and Knipper.

Malsch said as far as he knew, Bernsteen was present at the 2019 election but remained behind a curtain and was there only to answer any questions the poll workers might have had.

He said he does not recall refusing to place anything regarding the 2019 election on an agenda. Gaulke produced an email from Administrator John Olson in which Olson said Malsch had refused to do so.

Malsch said if complaints are being made against candidates, he might consider filing one against Gaulke if he found her recent letters to the editor had no attribution.

Knipper not immune

Gaulke said Knipper also sent out a mailer that had no disclaimer on it. Knipper, who is finishing her first term on the board, said she was unaware a complaint had been filed against her, is still new to the election process and was not aware a letter (mailer) required an attribution. She said all of her signs have the proper attribution.

Gaulke filed complaints with the Wisconsin Ethics and Elections Committees and contacted Walworth County District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld. She said Wiedenfeld told her she should report the matter to the Town of Delavan Police.

Gaulke contacted Town of Delavan Police Chief Ray Clark and, in order to avoid any conflict of interest, he referred it to the Walworth County Sheriff’s Department. Clark said he did not know if the sheriff’s department would investigate. Sheriff Kurt Picknell was out for the week but did confirm via email that his department does investigate election law violations and consult with the Walworth County District Attorney. He did not confirm by press time that his department is investigating this specific complaint.

“My thoughts are that elected officials must abide by the law and make all efforts to be transparent,” Gaulke said. “‘Paid for’ disclaimers make it clear to voters and residents who is behind the campaign – it demonstrates the honesty and integrity of the candidate.”

Gaulke said this feels underhanded and shady and skirting around the law and being unethical is not OK.

“It must be stopped and a light shown on it,” she said.

Knipper said the attributions on her signs clearly state she is paying for her own campaign. Bernsteen said she is also paying for her own campaign. Since he is running unopposed, Malsch said he hasn’t spent any money on campaign signs or advertisements and has only sent out a letter to fellow American Legion members and some friends.

For more election coverage, pick up a copy of the April 1 Delavan Enterprise.

 

 
 

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