An editorial that appeared in the Aug. 22 Tomahawk Leader
We’ll be the first to admit that the following item is “old news.” But the fact that it apparently never made it into news reports is what troubled us and makes it news today. We were encouraged not to make note of this news item by at least two high-ranking Merrill officials, which troubled us even further.
Public governmental officials need to be held to an open and higher standard. And, if by chance, their wrong-doings are treated any differently than the rest of us, we all have reason for concern.
That’s what left us wondering: Why did the issue of a Merrill official who was cited for hit and run after reportedly striking the Merrill City Hall building in late 2004 never see daylight?
Here’s the story: City Attorney Thomas Hayden, 53, Merrill, received the ticket from the Merrill Police Department after authorities investigated witness statements. According to reports acquired by the Tomahawk Leader through the Wisconsin Open Records Law, a Merrill City Hall employee observed Hayden leave his office around 9 a.m. Dec. 28, 2004, to get his tires checked. At that time, Hayden was “mumbling … swaying … and his eyelids appeared very heavy,” stated the witness, who gave a statement the following day.
The witness then reported hearing a crash outside her window and when she looked, saw Hayden’s 2005 SUV Jeep parked in the alley along East First Street. Hayden was reportedly standing outside the vehicle where it appeared he hit the building. He then left the premises and returned around 9:30 a.m., documents state. Hayden gave consent for police to take his vehicle – which received $1,300 in right front-end damage – for photographing. The building did not sustain damage, according to the reports.
The city attorney acknowledged to police that he “hit something” as he traveled westbound from the City Hall parking lot into the alley. Hayden said he did not receive any injuries. When questioned why he did not tell anyone that he hit the city hall building, the report says Hayden said, “I didn’t think it was worth talking about.” A crash report cites “inattentive driving” as an officer’s opinion of possible contributing circumstances to the accident. Drug tests were not given and the presence of alcohol and drugs was listed as “unknown.” Hayden declined comment. Merrill Police Chief Neil Strobel also declined comment on the investigation.
Admittedly, the Leader does not read Merrill Police Department reports regularly. Therefore, the Leader would not have seen the Hayden report when it became a closed investigation and was open for public review. However, why wasn’t this issue brought to light in any other fashion or media? While there is no one obvious source to lay blame upon, the question remains: In a state where open records are a right by statute, why wasn’t this report regarding a public official brought to the public’s attention when it occurred?