By DAVID KRIER
After more than 35 years on the job, Boscobel City Attorney John McNamee will be stepping down at the end of the month. He is expected to be replaced by Fennimore attorney Ben Wood by the Common Council when they meet June 1.
McNamee is a hometown boy who attended Immaculate Conception School and graduated from Boscobel High School in 1969. After a year working road construction jobs in places like Indiana and Florida, he attended UW-Madison, graduating with an English degree in 1974.
“After my year of hard labor I decided I needed to go back to school,” he says with a grin.
After passing the Law School Admission Test, McNamee was accepted at Hamline University Law School in St. Paul, Minnesota—leaving a public campus of approximately 40,000 students to a private one with just 3,000.
“I’ll never forget the day I registered at Hamline,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Where’s the rest of your campus? They said, ‘That’s it.’”
After graduation, McNamee returned to Boscobel with, as he puts it, “no job and no prospects.” That changed in a humorous way one night at the old Manhattan Club.
“I went to the Manhattan for a drink and met this old guy,” he says. “We got talking and eventually into an argument. I think I remember telling him he worked too much for his age.”
A few days later McNamee drove to Fennimore for a job interview. When he walked in the door there that same “old guy” stood.
“It was Nick Kramer. He remembered me, but he gave me the job anyway,” McNamee says.
At the time, May 1980, Kramer was Boscobel’s city attorney, as well as attorney for many other area municipalities and school boards. To lighten his work load, as McNamee had advised, he passed on the Boscobel job to his new hire. And thus began a 35-year professional relationship with his hometown, one that would see him work under five different mayors, several over staggered terms: Ernie Reynolds, Leo Johnson, Paul Bloyer, Jerry Linder and Steve Wetter.
Back in 1980 the Common Council met in what is now the children’s room of the Boscobel Public Library, “under the portrait of Sampson and Delilah, they eventually got rid of that.”
Just about everyone on the Council smoked in those days and most of the aldermen were well in their years. “They were all just ancient, ancient guys,” McNamee says.
That changed in the mid-1980’s when Jamie Goldsmith began televising Council meetings on Cable Channel 6.
“And the old guard, like I am now, decided it was time to move on,” McNamee says.
But that was 35 years and a lot of disorderly conduct charges ago.
“It seemed like I tried a disorderly conduct case every week because of a bar fight,” says the counselor. “For five or ten years it seemed like that’s all I did. I remember Judge Reineke saying one time, ‘Can anyone go out in Boscobel and not get in a fist fight?’”
But that also changed, for the good, due to two main factors, according to McNamee.
“The first was that Greg Bell bought Mel’s Bar, and the second was that Jerry Staskal became chief of police. The fights stopped, and Greg Bell was very instrumental in that. Things calmed down after that.”
McNamee says one of the most interesting things that happened during his legal career with the city was when a citizens action group sued the city in the late 1990’s for giving land to the state of Wisconsin for a new Supermax prison.
“At the time there was a law on the books that said municipalities couldn’t give land to the state to build a prison on,” he says. “So we gave the land to the (Boscobel) Developers to essentially give to the state. We won because there were no strings attached to the deal with the Developers. Legally, that was really interesting because we had to convince the court that we didn’t give the property to the state.”
He adds that it probably didn’t hurt the city’s case that the Supermax was then-Governor Tommy Thompson’s pet get-tough-on-crime project. It went before Grant County Circuit Court Judge George Curry, like Thompson, a staunch Republican.
Another twist with the Supermax project was that to get the town of Boscobel not to oppose siting it here, the city had to agree to pay the township any fees the state would pay in lieu of property taxes. At the time, that amounted to $70,000 to $80,000 per year. However, after the state changed its payment formula, the city stopped paying the township—and the township sued.
“I told (City Administrator) Arlie (Harris), ‘We lost but we won.’” Even though Judge Curry agreed with the township, the city’s payments fell to about $1,700 per year.
Over the years McNamee has served on the Boscobel Utility Board, Plan Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals. While he is retiring from his position as city attorney, he will continue to operate his private law office on Wisconsin Avenue, across the street from city hall. He has worked there since opening the office on May 1, 1996 with his office manager and administrative assistant Linda Smith.
“I’m not retiring; I’m still in business, but just on a part-time basis,” McNamee says. “It was a privilege, really, to serve. I guess I just didn’t want to outlive my welcome.”
Harris says that would never be the case.
“I’m gonna miss Mac,” he says. “He’s been good for the city. His location across from city hall was just ideal. He’s been around so long that if we had a question he knew the answer, or where to find it. I guess he just got burned out a little, and I don’t blame him. We’re going to miss him.”