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Typically newspapers don't want to make news

July 07, 2010 | 08:29 AM
Last week, the Regional News filed a complaint in Walworth County Circuit Court against Alderwoman Mary Jo Fesenmaier.

The complaint revolves around her response to our public records requests for e-mails involving the Mirbeau and Hummel development proposals. Despite two public records requests, Fesenmaier has not provided the Regional News with a single e-mail related to these topics, even though we know she has some.

We reported on this complaint and a story also appeared in the Janesville Gazette about it.

I have always believed newspapers shouldn't try to make the news. Reporters and writers should watch quietly from the sideline and document what happens to the best of their ability. They should not intentionally become embroiled in the matters themselves.

But, this situation changed my thinking.

The decision to file this complaint against a city official did not come lightly or haphazardly.

It wasn't something we wanted to do, but after much contemplation, we realized we had to.

We believe this alderwoman violated Wisconsin's open records laws. That is not something to be ignored.

All city officials, including Fesenmaier, were provided several opportunities and time to respond to our public records requests. The first of which were made on Feb. 25 to all sitting aldermen and the mayor at the time who used e-mail.

Other current and former city officials responded in writing and provided records. Through careful analysis of those responses, we found no reason to believe other officials were withholding public records.

Fesenmaier was the final alderperson to respond nearly three months after the first request. In her typed letter that included no date and no salutation, she stated she "had no records to share." But, we have e-mails from multiple sources that indicate otherwise.

That's why we will not sit idly by and watch as a city official disregards the laws of the land. If we do, we are no better than that city official.

We don't know for sure if Fesenmaier has more e-mails or what was written in the e-mails that may shed more light into the circumstances of the likely $401 million in total lawsuits against the city filed by Mirbeau and Hummel following the failure of their development proposals.

But, we do know the e-mails seem to be central to the cases and we have a right to see any of them that were written by public officials in their duties as representatives of this community.

Newspapers, including local community ones such as the Regional News, must ensure public officials are following the rules.

That is one of our responsibilities to the community, our readers and the public as a whole.

When we believe officials aren't, we must call them on it. Typically, we ask questions, write stories and editorials. We've tried that and so far, it hasn't helped us obtain these documents.

We also have tried to obtain our records through requests to the Walworth County District Attorney's Office. They helped out initially, urging the city officials respond to our requests.

However, they are busy with other work and it is unknown when they will be able to address our request for action to force Fesenmaier to provide us the records.

Our only remaining option was to file this complaint against the alderwoman.

It is the people's right and responsibility to be informed. Newspapers, other media and the open records laws are key to that happening.

I just wish we didn't have to make the news in order to illustrate this point.

Seiser is the editor of the Regional News.

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