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Lawsuit against former alderwoman makes point

January 11, 2012 | 07:26 AM
It's been a long, winding and uphill climb and we didn't even make it to the top.

Late last week, our lawsuit against former city alderwoman Mary Jo Fesenmaier officially came to an end with no more answers than we had before.

Our court case started way back in June 2010 as part of an effort to obtain open record e-mails from city officials pertaining to the multimillion dollar federal litigation between developers Mirbeau of Geneva Lake and Geneva Ridge Joint Venture and the city of Lake Geneva.

We asked for e-mails from elected city officials to find out what may have happened behind closed doors and computer screens as Mirbeau and Geneva Ridge alluded to in their court filings, claiming conspiracies and efforts behind the scenes by city officials to stop their projects.

To make a long story short, we didn't receive a single responsive e-mail from Fesenmaier, even though other alderman and city responses included interesting and relevant e-mails she sent and received regarding the developments. Some of these e-mails written by Fesenmaier also were cited in court documents by Mirbeau and Geneva Ridge, which were both suing the city for $130 million — a total that, if won, could have bankrupted the city.

For no other reason than that, we felt it imperative to do all we could to force Fesenmaier to abide by the state's open records laws. So, where are these e-mails? We haven't seen any from Fesenmaier and we won't, but we're pretty sure we know what happened to them.

The facts remain that Fesenmaier wrote, sent and received e-mails pertaining to the Mirbeau and Hummel developments. Because we believe they were e-mails about city business, they fell under the state's open records laws, which means they should have been kept and provided to us upon our request, just as other city officials did.

She claimed she didn't have any of these open records at the time of our requests. That may be true, but it was because we believe she violated state law by deleting them at some point. In depositions and other court documents, Fesenmaier and her attorney admitted that city-related e-mail records were deleted.

She also could have jeopardized the city's cases with the developers by deleting these e-mails after being told by the city's legal representatives to keep them.

In the past two months, both of those cases were settled, too — to the tune of a total of $3.85 million being paid to the developers from the city's insurance company. While the Regional News was never seeking a monetary resolution to the case against Fesenmaier, it was settled for a sum of $7,000, all of which went to our attorney to pay for just a portion of our representation in this issue.

We only wanted to see e-mails, which we planned to use to piece together what happened regarding these lawsuits and the reasons why Mirbeau and Hummel had made all their claims against city officials, including racketeering and misconduct in office.

Obviously, we will never get that opportunity.

While Fesenmaier was at the forefront of our effort to obtain public records, she wasn't the only problem.

The Walworth County District Attorney's Office turned a blind eye to some of these violations. Despite a sheriff's detective and the Regional News providing evidence against Fesenmaier that included admissions of deleting public records as an elected official, the DA did nothing.

In the end, a lot of time and some money was spent with no real resolution.

But that doesn't mean there are any regrets. The Regional News has shown that when it comes to open records, we will not sit by and ignore the law and we will make elected officials accountable by whatever means necessary.

We already know by statements that other municipalities and their officials have heard that message loud and clear.

And if that's the only thing that comes from this long road, then it was worth every penny.

Seiser is the editor of the Regional News.

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