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Regional News asks for court's help

May 12, 2010 | 08:55 AM
More than three months after initial public records request were made to a number of city officials, the Lake Geneva Regional News still is waiting for responses.

So, on Monday afternoon, the newspaper filed a request with Walworth County District Attorney Phil Koss, asking that he bring circuit court action ordering release of certain city officials' e-mails regarding the Mirbeau of Geneva Lake and Geneva Ridge Joint Venture development proposals.

Since Feb. 25, the Regional News has been seeking compliance from officials with public records requests for e-mails that date back from late 2007 until now.

Two separate, detailed written requests were made for e-mails from several elected officials. After receiving little responses to those requests, a letter was sent to the DA's office in late March about officials' noncompliance. Assistant District Attorney Diane Donohoo wrote a letter to City Attorney Dan Draper requesting that the Regional News' requests be answered by the elected officials as soon as possible.

More than five weeks after that, some officials have not yet complied with the public records requests, including current aldermen Mary Jo Fesenmaier and Frank Marsala and former alderwoman Penny Roehrer.

According to the letter written by Regional News Editor Lisa Seiser, Fesenmaier has made no contact with the Regional News regarding the requests, despite e-mails asking about the status of the public records request. Roehrer has been in e-mail contact with the Regional News and recently has stated the e-mails are in the hands of City Attorney Dan Draper to determine if they are public records. Marsala provided a Compact Disk more than two weeks ago that could not be opened and has not provided anything further.

"We believe these responses are unacceptable, especially when records first were made on Feb. 25 and then again on March 12," Seiser stated in the letter to Koss. "These e-mails also should be easier to provide than these officials are contending because they should have been provided to their attorneys as part of these federal court cases."

Seiser also stated in the letter that she believes the initial public records requests weren't taken seriously until the District Attorney's office became involved.

"It is obvious now that most of them didn't start collecting or looking for these e-mails until ADA Donohoo sent her letter to Attorney Draper and he wrote a memo to aldermen telling them to respond to the requests," Seiser stated. "That is equally unacceptable and we believe an intentional violation of law."

On Saturday, Draper sent Seiser an e-mail confirming that he was going through Roehrer's e-mails to determine if any were attorney-client privilege. He also wrote that Fesenmaier was searching for hers and he had hopes to provide Seiser with e-mails by the end of the week.

In previous e-mail correspondence, on April 27, Roehrer stated that she was going through "over 1,000 e-mails" and it was "taking longer than expected." On April 28, she stated in an e-mail that "I'd love to discuss with you why it's taken so long, there are reasons, but I don't feel it's right to discuss any aspect of this court case until it's over." She also stated that she believed the city would prevail in the cases.

Seiser stated in her letter that, "we firmly believe these city officials are intentionally delaying release of these e-mails. We believe there is a reason why these e-mails have not been released in a timely manner. However, we will not know exactly why that is until we see them."

At the April 12 City Council meeting, then mayor Bill Chesen suggested the aldermen respond to the records requests after Draper received the letter from Donohoo.

According to the Wisconsin Attorney General's Office, the public records law does not require response within a specific time. However, Department of Justice policy is that 10 working days generally is a reasonable response time to a simple request for easily identifiable records. If a response cannot be provided within 10 days, it is the Department of Justice's practice to send communication indicating that a response is being prepared. The office states that "requests for public records should be given high priority."

Chesen has provided two separate letters and included e-mails found during the computer hard drive scans. Alderman Don Tolar submitted a letter on April 13 stating he had no e-mails to provide and Todd Krause wrote in an e-mail that there were no e-mails found of his so far during the computer hard drive scans. None of those three officials were named in the letter to Koss.

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