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Reality Check: 911 Center Claims In County Exec Race

Published On: Apr 02 2009 08:58:27 AM CDT   Updated On: Apr 02 2009 09:03:08 AM CDT

Controversy was sparked one year ago over the alleged mishandling of a 911 call from slaying victim Brittany Zimmermann, and with just five days to the spring election, the issue is still center stage as the Dane County executive candidates trade barbs over the county's 911 Center.

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"Kathleen Falk cut funding for 911 and then tragedy struck," says a recent ad by challenger Nancy Mistele.

"Sadly, instead of discussing her record or vision, my opponent is trying to use tragedy for political advantage," says a recent ad by Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk.

The 911 Center controversy began with a call from Zimmermann that officials said was mishandled. Police said a dispatcher should have heard sounds indicating that Zimmermann needed help, while the dispatcher has said she heard nothing indicating an emergency on the call.

Mistele alleges that Falk cut funding for 911 prior to the Zimmermann call. But a WISC-TV "Reality Check" found this claim misleading. Falk requested a $138,000 cut to Public Safety Communications in her 2005 budget instructions.

"All county agencies get the same budget guidelines, and then I and the County Board review them, and I rejected those suggestions for cuts and in fact added to the 911 system, as I have every year," Falk told WISC-TV on May 20, 2008.

The final Dane County Budget signed in 2005 made no cuts to the 911 Center and instead added three positions. The county's 911 Center's budget has increased each year since.

But Mistele claims Falk's handling of the Zimmermann call controversy shows poor leadership in the county.

"She tried a cover-up, then passed the buck to the Legislature, then the police, then the operators," says the Mistele ad.

All citations given in the ad are from an Isthmus opinion article last May, not local news reports, WISC-TV reported.

WISC-TV also found that whether there was a "cover-up" is up for debate. Falk claimed from the beginning that Madison police officials asked the county not to share information from the 911 call, and it still hasn't fully been made public. Police leaders said that they asked to keep contents of the tape secret but never said the call couldn't be discussed in general.

"Since a mishandled 911 call last year, we've taken action and made changes," says a recent Falk ad. "A recent independent audit called our system 'well-run,' even as we make more improvements."

There have been changes made since last year, including a new policy that says police will be dispatched on cell phone calls, a change in 911 Center management and a new audit of the center.

The audit did say Dane County's 911 Center was well-run, saying that calls are answered in less than eight seconds and the center meets many best practices targets.

But the report found a few elements for concern and improvement, including that dispatchers feel policies and procedures aren't clear or up to date and that the center needs more management staff and training.

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