EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of the story below incorrectly implied the amount of money the State Bar of Wisconsin paid for a meeting space and hotel rooms at the Stone Harbor Resort in Sturgeon Bay. Nancy Bertz, Stone Harbor general manager, said the resort keeps confidential the rate contracts with clients. We regret the error.
In the face of a six-figure deficit, the State Bar of Wisconsin is juggling cutting costs with outreach efforts to its members statewide.
Of the five meetings the group holds each fiscal year, at least two typically are in different areas of the state to allow greater participation from members in areas outside the bar’s home base in Madison. In Fiscal Year 2011, the bar opted to hold a third meeting outside Madison, said former president Jim Boll, despite the fact that doing so costs about $10,000 to $15,000 more, on average, than hosting meetings at the State Bar Center in Madison.
The bar decided to do so, Boll said, because of growing unrest among members at that time about a lack of interaction with the bar in areas outside Madison.
But given the bar’s balance sheet as of Aug. 31 reported a $377,731 deficit, the organization this fiscal year is opting to drop back to two meetings outside of Madison. The first such meeting started Friday at the Stone Harbor Resort in Sturgeon Bay.
The decision to drop back to two meetings outside Madison is not an easy one, said the bar’s Executive Director George Brown, because holding meetings in just one location neglects outlying members.
“It’s all about outreach,” he said. “So anybody who doesn’t understand that is just a parochial Madison individual and I live in Madison, but there is a parochialism about Madison.”
Brown acknowledged the need to be fiscally responsible, however, and said staff members always worked to cut the best deal when negotiating space and accommodations for meetings at locations other than the State Bar Center.
Nancy Bertz, Stone Harbor’s general manager, said the resort keeps confidential rate contracts with clients and would not divulge how much the bar paid for the Stone Harbor meetings.
The bar pays for room and meals for board members to attend the meetings, in addition to providing mileage reimbursement, regardless of where the meeting is held.
Although the group tries to budget accordingly, Brown said, the total cost of such reimbursements is not known until after the fact.
“We always look for opportunities to keep costs down,” he said. “But we won’t know anything about any of these meetings until months after the meeting so it’s like throwing a dart at a wall.”
Brown said he did not know how much the bar expected to spend for members to attend the Sturgeon Bay meeting.
Outreach efforts in Sturgeon Bay included a brief speech by Door County Bar president-elect Linda Schaefer and an invitation to local attorneys to attend a Friday evening reception.
“There is that tension between wanting to be fiscally responsible,” said board member and Milwaukee attorney Amy Wochos, “and avoiding the perception that there is this bubble around Madison or Milwaukee.”
Wochos attended the Sturgeon Bay meeting and said out-state gatherings were worth it to show the board was not out of touch or not receptive to what was going on in other parts of the state.
Steve Levine, a board member and Madison attorney, said having the bar meet at various resorts throughout the state sent the wrong message, however, at a time when the bar was struggling to balance its budget.
“The bar shouldn’t be gallivanting around the state,” he said, “holding these meetings that cost several thousand dollars more than just holding the meetings in Madison. For members to be going around enjoying themselves and saying they are short on money doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Jeff Zirgibel, a board member and Brookfield attorney, said he supported having all meetings in Madison going forward, not only for the cost, but for convenience.
He and Levine were among nine of the 47 board members who didn’t make the trip Friday to Door County.
“I personally prefer that all the meetings be held in Madison,” Zirgibel said, “because the vast majority of the lawyers are from there or the Milwaukee area.”
Of the 24,175 State Bar members — aside from the 7,692 nonresident members — 8,995 are from either Dane or Milwaukee counties, both of which are singular districts on the Board of Governors.
Boll said he did not receive any negative feedback from members about holding the majority of board meetings outside of Madison in Fiscal Year 2011.
“When it comes down to it, was that money worth it from a governance standpoint?” he said. “Did we get more exposure to local bars and were people better governors because of it? I think they were. Some reasonable minds can differ on that.”
Levine, who attended an April 8-9 bar meeting at the Hotel Sierra in Green Bay, said there was little evidence at that time that outreach was a success in drawing interest in the bar’s presence.
“As far as the success, it seemed to fall flat on its face,” he said. “Any meeting I was at, there did not appear to be a huge rush of local attorneys there.”
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