HJ/EDMay 1, 2006

Charges against WISE committee dismissed by judges

By Liz Hellmann
Staff Writer

A misleading statement isn’t the same as a false statement, a fact that has cleared Victor Niska of Waverly from allegations he violated the law.

Allegations against Niska were dismissed after the State of Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) ruled statements he made did not violate Minnesota Statute 211B.06 “by preparing and disseminating campaign material. . . that was false and that (he) knew to be false or communicated to others with reckless disregard as to whether it was false.”

“I am happy and satisfied that the decision came down the way it did. I knew the truth would prevail in the end,” Niska said.

Niska has been on the defensive since January, when 17 allegations were brought against him by the Building Unity in the Laker District (BUILD) committee, represented by Michelle Heuer of Waverly.

“It is unfortunate people try to persuade people with opinion rather than fact, but we respect the court’s decision and thank them for their time,” Heuer said.

Niska is chairperson of the We Insist on Sound Education (WISE) committee.

The two committees were pitted against each other during a recent campaign to pass a bond referendum for the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted School District.

BUILD was in favor of the bond referendum, WISE against.

A bond referendum for a new high school failed in December, but another one passed Feb. 21.

Prior to the Dec. 13 vote, WISE published and distributed a post card and four-page document which contained several statements the BUILD committee believed were illegal.

Heuer brought 17 alleged false statements made by WISE to the Minnesota OAH.

Fourteen of them were thrown out by the court, and the other three were the subject of an evidentiary hearing since March 3.

The burden of proof lying on Heuer and the BUILD committee, the court consistently found insufficient evidence to prove any of the statements were false.

Niska feels he was not misleading anyone, but is entitled to free speech.

“Our founding forefathers were willing to give up their lives for freedom of speech. I believe there are some people in today’s world that need to be re-educated on what freedom of speech really means,” Niska said.

The ruling of the administrative judges concerning these three statements are as follows:

“Like most Minnesotans, HLWW taxpayers saw their tax support of school shift from property taxes to state income taxes a few years ago.”

During the hearing, BUILD’s own witness, Brad Lundell, admitted that this statement was true as it relates to school operating expenses.

However, because the referendum at issue concerned a school building project and not operating expenses, Lundell said he found the statement to be misleading.

Since the statute is directed against false statements, this allegation was dismissed.

“The construction delivery method is decided to be a general contractor, also agreed upon in a written contract. This will take the district out of the majority of the construction details, decisions, and quality control. . .”

Heuer argued that the contract between the school district and the Smiley Glotter Nyberg (SGN) architectural firm ensures that the school district will maintain control over the majority of construction details, decisions, and quality control.

She cited several provisions in the contract where phrases such as “after consulting with the owner (school district),” or “upon owner approval” are used.

SGN is also scheduled to meet regularly with the building committee once construction has started.

Because a contract has not yet been signed with a general contractor, the court decided that the statement by Niska is based on his opinion and past experience as a school district manager.

The court ruled the statements are not false, but are Niska’s personal belief that by not contracting directly with sub-contractors, the school district will have little control over the construction details.

“I have personally been offered a bribe by SGN Architects – free tickets to the Twins game during the World Series.”

Niska claims that when he was serving as a building committee member for Westonka School District Gary Nyberg of SGN offered tickets to the World Series game six between the Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves to a member of the building committee and the superintendent.

Nyberg admitted to offering tickets to other school district staff to try and gain their favor, but denied offering any to Niska.

The court ruled that Nyberg’s testimony alone is not sufficient, clear, and convincing evidence to establish that Niska’s statement is false.

The court also decided that Heuer did not show how this statement, even if false, relates to the effect of the school bond referendum.

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