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August 21, 2012 | 05:31 PMMany in Lake Geneva city government wish that September 2009 would just fade into the past.
But it raised its unwanted head again during the Aug. 13 meeting of the Lake Geneva Committee of the Whole.
The four city council members, Tom Spellman, Mary Jo Fesenmaier, Penny Roehrer and Arleen Krohn, who were suspended by former Mayor William Chesen in September 2009, are asking the city for $12,000 each in compensation for legal fees they say they incurred trying to get their council seats back.
The four were eventually reinstated.
Krohn is the only one still on the council.
The issue was on the committee agenda at the request of aldermen Gary Hougen and committee chairman Alan Kupsik.
The two council members represent the opposing sides on the issue.
On Sept. 9, 2009, four city council members were suspended from the city council on complaints made by William Chesen as a taxpaying city resident, which he then verified as the mayor.
What followed was a flurry of legal activity in Walworth County Circuit Court, until Judge Michael Gibbs worked out a compromise that got the council members reinstated by Nov. 9, 2009.
The mayor was immediately granted legal representation by the city's insurance company, which is through the League of Municipalities.
The four suspended council members had to hire and pay for their own legal representation for the 60 days between their removal and reinstatement.
Why the mayor qualified for immediate legal representation and the four council members did not has not been clearly explained by anyone on behalf of the city.
The four suspended council members claim city administration failed to notify the insurance company of their need for legal representation in a timely manner.
Hougen maintains that the four were denied their rights and privileges as elected officials when they were suspended by former Mayor Chesen.
"There's a public trust in what we do," Hougen said. "To deny us the ability to represent our constituents as is required is a violation of our public trust."
During the meeting, Hougen argued that there is enough money in the city budget to set some aside to reimburse council members for unexpected legal costs connected to their duties as council members.
Hougen said he believes that the city can't put the issue into the past until it formally votes the reimbursement request up or down.
"I feel like there's a lot of hangover from previous years," said Hougen. "There's been a lot of mistrust of local government."
Hougen doesn't agree with the precedent of the mayor dismissing aldermen and alderwoman, whether technically legal or not. The incident still hangs over the heads of the council members.
"It is a cautionary note to all officials in government to be careful in what we say and what we do," he said.
Kupsik said he signed off on Hougen's request to put the issue on the committee agenda as a "help to a freshman alderman."
"This thing has been put to sleep more than once," Kupsik said, adding he hopes this is the last time the council members will have to discuss it.
In March, the city's insurance company and the four formerly-suspended council members signed an agreement that gave the four a total of $10,000.
"We were instructed by the insurance company to take the settlement," Kupsik said. "Once we voted on the settlement, that was it."
At the Aug. 13 meeting, the committee of the whole discussed the issue of compensation, and then dismissed it by concensus. No vote was taken.
The council members opposing reimbursement cited a confidential letter they received from City Attorney Dan Draper.
According to their argument, Chesen did nothing deemed illegal by suspending the council members and the four suspended council members signed the settlement, technically ending the episode.
Kupsik said he does not believe the issue will be raised before the council members again.
"I'm a firm believer in not beating a dead horse," he said.
Hougen agreed that the issue probably won't reach the city council level.
"I don't perceive any support from either the city attorney or the council for that," he said.
On the other hand, he doesn't believe the issue is dead, yet, either.
"The pastor in me wants to bring people together to heal the past," Hougen said. "I want to have a go at having justice."
Earlier, on May 7, the four suspended council members also made an appeal to the committee of the whole for reimbursement. It was placed on the agenda by Krohn and former Alderman Terry O'Neill.
That request led to the confidential letter from the city attorney. All of the council members except Krohn received a copy of the letter. (See related story in the print edition of the Regional News).