Thursday, August 22nd, 2019

What is hidden behind the giant guitar?


There have been many questions since Mayor Jeff Scrima announced that the city of Waukesha is going to be the next Gibson GuitarTown. The excitement in Waukesha was understandable since the Nashville GuitarTown project raised over $400,000 for local charities.

One of the more interesting questions is the involvement of Scrima’s controversial New Day for Waukesha Fund, which is overseen by the Waukesha County Community Foundation. The New Day Fund was set up as a way for Mayor Scrima to avoid fulfilling his campaign promise to give back half his salary if he was elected. Scrima has been reluctant to reveal anything about the fund. He has even stopped making direct deposits to the fund so nobody knows how much he is really contributing. Nor does anyone know who the other contributors are or how the donations are solicited.

The supplier of the large fiberglass guitar bodies, F.A.S.T. Corp of Sparta, WI, required payment for seven of the large guitar bodies and it was reported that the New Day Fund paid for them. However, what really happened is that the Waukesha Business Improvement District (BID) took a donation from Scrima’s New Day Fund and then wrote a check to Gibson for the guitars. There has not been any explanation why this transaction took place.

I have since learned how the money was funneled through the BID, that Mayor Scrima ordered it, and that the BID may have been breaking state law. What’s more, Mayor Jeff Scrima himself has actively discouraged cooperation with investigations into how this transaction took place.

According to BID Executive Director Meghan Sprager, on January 5th Mayor Jeff Scrima and BID President Norm Bruce, owner of Martha Merrill’s Bookstore in downtown Waukesha, asked Sprager about the possibility of the BID acting as a “fiscal agent” for the project as well as possibly managing the project. Sprager explained that it would be appropriate with BID Board approval. Later that same day, Scrima presented the BID with an invoice for $15,160.00 to cover the guitars and shipping costs.

The invoice was to the Waukesha BID, not to Scrima’s New Day Fund. It was also dated December 20th, 2011, prior to Bruce becoming BID President. Shawn Reilly, who was BID President on December 20th, had never seen the invoice nor did he know of its existence until he recently inquired if there was any contract between the BID and Gibson. He discovered there is no contract but he learned of the invoice.

The Gibson GuitarTown designation for Waukesha was announced January 10th by Mayor Jeff Scrima to fanfare despite the scant details of the project. Instead of the project being directed by the BID as Sprager anticipated, Scrima announced a “steering committee” with the following members: Waukesha State Bank President Ty Taylor, Former Waukesha Democratic Party Chairman and Waukesha judge Rick Congdon, BID President Norm Bruce, BID Vice President and Director of West End Artists Lynn Gaffey, Steve Kassens from the Board of Public Works, former alderman Charles Lichtie, and Scrima.

The BID Board met on January 12th. According to Sprager, the BID Board agreed to endorse the project “with the understanding that economics and staffing issues would be discussed as more details became available.” There was not a decision at that time to act as a conduit for the New Day Fund’s purchase of the guitars. The BID Board has never approved the transaction.

On January 26th, the Waukesha County Community Foundation, on behalf of Scrima’s New Day Fund which it administers, sent a check to the BID Office for $15,160.00 with the intent of funneling the money through the BID accounts to the guitar vendor. Again, no explanation was made why this was necessary.

According to Sprager, “Mayor Scrima instructed the BID to deposit the check into the BID account, and write-out a BID check to the vendor. He then asked that we deliver the check to him at our earliest convenience.”

Sprager did so, as she “always perceived” the project would be managed by the BID. However, there was no BID Board approval, and no explanation why the BID had to act as a conduit was provided to Sprager.

As one Board member pointed out to me, WI Stats. Section 66.1109 (4) says,

 (4) All special assessments received from a business improvement district and all other appropriations by the municipality or other moneys received for the benefit of the business improvement district shall be placed in a segregated account in the municipal treasuryNo disbursements from the account may be made except to reimburse the municipality for appropriations other than special assessments, to pay the costs of audits required under sub. (3)(c) or on order of the board for the purpose of implementing the operating plan. On termination of the business improvement district by the municipality, all moneys collected by special assessment remaining in the account shall be disbursed to the owners of specially assessed property in the business improvement district, in the same proportion as the last collected special assessment. {emphasis added – JW}

It seems pretty clear that the transaction needed Board approval.

However, Sprager says she checked with a number of “bankers, certified public accountants, and attorneys” and “overwhelmingly” they told her the transaction was legal. Again, her perception is that the BID would eventually be managing the project.

And the BID might. Tomorrow morning the BID Executive Committee is meeting, at the request of Waukesha State Bank President Ty Taylor, to discuss the Gibson GuitarTown project. As it has been expressed to me through other sources, Taylor is dissatisfied with the project’s progress so far and would prefer Sprager, given her experience and background, to direct the project.

The mayor was contacted by me regarding my questions about the Gibson GuitarTown project. Scrima refused to answer, directing me instead to the “steering committee” chairman Congdon, Sprager at the BID, and the Waukesha County Community Foundation.

Scrima indicated in his email to me that “the Waukesha GuitarTown Project is a non-taxpayer funded community-based art project.” However, the BID is a public body, and its expenditures are also public.

Scrima has also made it clear that he does not want cooperation with any inquiries into GuitarTown. In an email to Sprager, he wrote,


Note that under Wisconsin Open Records law that you are only required to provide the specific records themselves that were requested. You are not required to answer anything else or provide your own opinion.

In fact, your following opinion quotes appear to be slanderous and damaging to the downtown, the GuitarTown Steering Committee Members and the Project itself:

“I may not agree with how all of the Guitar Town decisions have been made or in the manner for which they were communicated”

“From my perspective, it would be sad and ridiculous to debate such details in a courtroom.”

“At the root of this issue is the mistrust between some BID Board Members and downtown Stakeholders”

“Unfortunately, there is great skepticism about how the endeavor is being managed due to a lack of detail-sharing.”

Further note that you are not obligated to respond to Mr. Wigderson immediately. The typical timeframe for an Open Records response is 10 business days.

Please consult with the BID Board President and the BID Board as to the timing and appropriateness of your response, especially given that the Board will discuss the Project in open session tomorrow morning.

Jeff Scrima
Mayor, City of Waukesha
201 Delafield Street
Waukesha WI 53188

Obviously controlling the message is more important to Scrima than having the truth revealed about the questionable circumstances surrounding the GuitarTown project. However, since Scrima has revealed his intentions to obstruct open records requests into the matter, serious questions surround the GuitarTown project. (So much for his promises of trasnparency.) As the project had almost unanimous support from the community, the obvious question is why is there so much secrecy surrounding the project?

The investigation continues…

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