A family vacation to Florida in late February ended in jail time for Wauwatosa 6th District Ald. Brian Ewerdt and left him absent from city business for nearly three weeks during a critical time in civic affairs.
Ewerdt, a member of both the Common Council’s Employee Relations and Budget and Finance committees, was excused from the Feb. 22 meetings of those committees and the full council because he was on vacation.
But that same night in Kissimmee, FL, police records show, he was arrested for domestic battery and taken into custody by the Osceola County Sheriff’s Department.
"I was involved in an unfortunate family situation while on vacation in Florida that didn't allow me to attend three city meetings, and for that I am deeply sorry," Ewerdt said in a prepared statement.
"I feel it is important to be honest, knowing elected officials are held to a higher standard," he said. "I invite any constituents to please call me directly to address any concerns."
During the following two weeks, the Employee Relations Committee met once in special session and once in regular session, holding critical discussions on city union workers' contracts and Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill. The Common Council also met March 1 but did not address the contracts.
Meanwhile, Ewerdt remained jailed in Florida for 17 days before posting bond and returning to Wisconsin the day before the council was to vote on the contracts on March 15.
According to the police report, the victim, a female relative whose name and relation were not released by police, said Ewerdt had been upset by a car accident he had been in earlier that day and that the two had an argument because he did not want to talk about it.
The report said Ewerdt put his hands around her neck and kicked her in the leg.
In the report, Ewerdt said the aggression was mutual, but another relative who witnessed the incident said Ewerdt was the instigator. The victim called authorities because, she said, she feared further violence.
Under Florida law, officers responding to a case of domestic violence must identify and arrest the party deemed most responsible, and Ewerdt was deemed the “primary aggressor” in the charging document.
The report said he gave substantially the same account of the incident as the victim except that he said he had also been attacked. The arresting officer said Ewerdt confessed to the battery and admitted there had been other minor incidents between himself and the victim that had not been reported to authorities.
Ewerdt was arraigned and charged the next day, and bond was set at $2,000.
Ewerdt, in an interview, said he could not afford to post bail immediately and it took 17 days for a friend to find him a lawyer in Florida and then for the lawyer to find a bail bondsman willing to post the money for someone from out of state.
According to court records, the county abandoned the case in late April, citing "no information filed," because the complainant no longer wished to pursue the matter.
Key meetings on contracts missed
Ewerdt returned to Wauwatosa the day before the Common Council – faced by a large and vocal crowd of citizens – voted down contracts the city had negotiated with three employee unions.
The committee meetings he missed during the preceding three weeks included lengthy and complex presentations of information on the contracts and related effects of the state budget repair bill. The committee went into closed session for an hour at the March 8 meeting.
"The meetings that were being held by Employee Relations at that time were very important business," said Ald. Peter Donegan, chairman of the committee. "Those were very critical and complicated discussions on employee compensation. They were attended by most aldermen, not just committee members.
"We were developing our position toward all of our unions in light of the budget repair bill. The budget repair bill was the most impactful legislation to affect this city in memory,” said Donegan, who would not comment on Ewerdt's absence.
A review of the minutes of all meetings of the Common Council, the Budget and Finance Committee and the Employee Relations Committee during and immediately following Ewerdt's absence revealed no votes in which his would have been a deciding factor.