The situation in Onalaska’s Water-Sewer District 5 has reached a new low point, with a recall petition filed against commissioner Deborah Hilliard by Dennis Eros — the man she defeated by way of a coin-toss in the last election — a flurry of accusations between the two and an acknowledgement that talks to restore sewer service from District 2 are a pointless waste of time.
“She violated more than one statute,” Eros said in an interview. “That has to play out by the voters. If the voters think I'm right, they'll vote to recall. If they think she's right, they will not. ... She has stepped all over due process and just doesn't give a good rat’s a-- about that.”
Hilliard says the claims are unfounded, and that Eros’s actions are the result of a hate-fueled vendetta — one that has verged into frightening territory.
“Dennis, he has been very threatening. I’m afraid of him,” she said. “I really have done nothing wrong. I only have tried to make the district better.”
The tiny district has long held outsized notoriety for the running feud between Hilliard and fellow commissioner Virgil Fox, the developer responsible for the Birchfield community the district encompasses. Fox faces conflict-of-interest accusations for his dual roles as public official and developer — the district owes him more than $200,000 for the sale of water infrastructure.
District 2 has cut off its agreement to provide sewer service for District 5, citing ethical concerns over Fox, and Lewis County has issued a moratorium on building permits due to the lack of sewer service. Fox and Hilliard have long been at odds, and the district’s third commissioner, April Toups, resigned earlier this year — just a few months after being appointed to replace another commissioner who abruptly resigned in disgust.
With the resignation and the recall, Lewis County is abandoning its attempts to seek a mediator to help Districts 2 and 5 work out their issues, acknowledging the situation is beyond repair.
“It’s unlikely that facilitation would work,” said civil deputy prosecutor Eric Eisenberg. “We reached out to both districts. Both districts have confirmed that they think that the atmosphere now is not very likely to result in a successful facilitation.”
In 2017, Hilliard and Eros tied 11-11 in their bid for the same commission seat, which Hilliard won thanks to a fortuitous coin flip. Now, Eros is charging that Hilliard’s long feud with Fox resulted in ethical and legal breaches of her duties, making it necessary for voters to have the chance to cast her out.
The Lewis County prosecuting attorney’s office has synthesized the charges into a ballot synopsis, which will be presented at a hearing in Lewis County Superior Court on March 4. The court will determine whether the recall petition sufficiently establishes that Hilliard “has committed an act or acts of malfeasance, misfeasance or violation of oath of office.”
If the judge determines that the recall has legal standing, it will be placed before voters on the ballot.
The petition filed by Eros states that Hilliard, along with her friend and neighbor Toups, mounted a “civil conspiracy” to usurp power from Fox and try to force his resignation. In January of 2018, it alleges, Hilliard called a special meeting to strip Fox of special authorities he’d been designated over the years — knowing he would be out of town and unable to defend himself.
“Hilliard went out of her way to deny due process to Virgil Fox,” it reads.
The measure passed, along with the support of then-commissioner Steven Nikolich. Soon after, Nikolich came to believe that Fox had not been properly notified of the meeting, and expressed regret at having been drawn into the rivalry.
“I am fed up with these games and have no interest in staying on this board,” he wrote in his resignation letter. County commissioners later appointed Toups to fill the seat.
Hilliard said the special meeting was called because the district needed to sign forms and take care of other business, and Fox had not notified her that he would be out of town. She said she left phone and email messages with Fox and received no response.
“For years he has been doing pretty much whatever he wanted,” she said. “I wanted to make it clear that the board was the governing body. I didn’t know what else might happen in the next month as far as what actions he might take or how he might bind the district.”
As for Nikolich’s statement of regret, she added: “No one held a gun to his head. He signed it voluntarily.”
The recall petition further alleges that Hilliard went behind the backs of fellow commissioners to arrange an audit of the district — an attempt to ferret out dirt on Fox — before strong-arming them into signing the $10,000 contract even when cheaper local auditors were available.
She maintains that the audit was necessary, and she only conducted informal discussion with the accounting firm on her personal email before presenting a proposal to the commission. The other commissioners had plenty of notice, she said, noting that Fox voted in an earlier meeting to allow the district’s attorney to look over the contract — though he ended up voting against the deal.
“This wasn’t a big surprise to anybody,” Hilliard said. “Nothing was hidden.”
Hilliard is also accused of keeping official files away from the district office and ordering the district’s attorney not to contact Fox, “usurping his authority and undermining his effectiveness.”
The district’s pump house doubles as its office, and the building has no climate control, she said. Some files, she admitted, she’s removed from the office, because she’s concerned they’ll disappear as she says other important files have done. In addition, she claims that whenever she visits the building, Eros shows up in short order to and behaves in intimidating fashion.
“I don’t stay up there because I’m afraid to stay up there,” she said. “If I’m up there for more than a few minutes, either Dennis or Virgil come up.”
Eros said that such claims are “bull----,” and because his business is located near the pump house, any run-ins are pure coincidence. Hilliard said Eros was so disruptive at one meeting the the police were called. He responded that the police have also been called on Jimmy Hilliard, her husband and a former commission candidate, on separate occasions.
“What possibly could she be concerned about me? … If I was disruptive, commissioner Hilliard's husband set the tone,” he said. “He showed me how to do it.”
The document also says it’s likely Hilliard and Toups reached agreements on issues outside of official public meetings. Hilliard said such claims are groundless, and that any incidents that appeared to be illegal coordination were a result of the pair’s longtime knowledge of each other — and each other’s feelings on issues — predating Toups’ tenure as commissioner.
Meanwhile, Hilliard claims that the petition is coming after Fox and his allies waged a campaign to push out Hilliard voters — mostly renters — by urging homeowners to sell the lots. After a departure of some voters, she believes Eros knows he has the margin he needs to mount a successful recall.
Eros said the timing of the recall has nothing to do with vote counts.
“I brought the petition when it was finished,” he said. “It has taken awhile to develop the petition. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
With conditions only worsening in the district, Eisenberg suggested that the county focus its energy on exploring what would happen if the county were to take over the district.
“Start in a serious way looking into what happens if no deal is reached and the county is asked either by the state government or the district themselves to take over for them,” he said, noting that it could be a difficult process. “Let’s investigate how it could be — or not — that the county could end up taking over the work of this and other water districts. … That’s going to take time to learn. It’s a big deal.”
Hilliard said she could be supportive of such a move.
“I would feel more comfortable that the county would take the proper steps for the district,” she said. “It could be an option I would support. …. I think it would be a good thing.”
District 2 manager Amie Smith said it was unlikely the conflict — and sewer service moratorium — between two districts could be worked out with the ongoing commission upheaval in District 5.
“Without having a third commissioner, it makes it really hard for us to be able to even put anything on the table. We need to have two parties that don’t have beneficial interest,” she said. “Now with the recall, what are they going to do when they’re down to one?”
A county takeover, Smith said, might be one remedy to restore the connection.
“We’re willing to work with anybody,” she said.