Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

Council problems in past?

by Lisa Seiser

March 01, 2012

It’s taken nearly 2-1/2 years, but it appears all the litigation revolving around the problems of previous City Councils are over.

The holdout piece officially was finalized Monday night when the City Council approved a settlement with three former aldermen and one current alderwoman. The city’s insurance carrier through the League of Wisconsin Municipalities will pay a sum of $10,000 total for legal fees the aldermen incurred in fall 2009 when the council and mayor were at its most heated.

“I am glad we were able to settle this and place no responsibility on either side,” City Attorney Dan Draper said Tuesday. “Now we can move on from this chapter in our history.”

This agreement, which ends the appeal filed by the aldermen, occurred after the city settled lawsuits in the past few months with developers Mirbeau of Lake Geneva and Geneva Ridge Joint Venture for a total of $3.85 million.

Alderwoman Arleen Krohn and former council members Mary Jo Fesenmaier, Tom Spellman and Penny Roehrer wanted the city to pay for more than $90,000 in legal fees incurred during their 2009 suspensions from the council imposed by former mayor Bill Chesen.

On Monday, prior to the council signing off on the settlement, those involved had more to say. During the public comments portion of the meeting, Roehrer read a statement and used her full 5-minute limit. She called the settlement a “compromise.”

She explained the reasons why the aldermen hired attorneys — so they could get back to work on the council as elected officials and that the violations were found to have no merit.

Roehrer also questioned why the item was on the agenda. She said the settlement has been made and the city “isn’t involved.”

However, she focused more on ensuring current and future aldermen are protected from financial loss for performing their duties.

“We paid our fees out of pocket and that should alarm all citizens and aldermen,” Roehrer said.

She also said the city should pay the amount each of the former and current aldermen are “out,” which she said is $13,000 each.

“It would take guts for the city to rise up and pay us and make the statement that all aldermen should be protected from financial loss,” Roehrer said. “That means you support the free and open process afforded to local officials.”

Spellman also read a statement regarding the situation.

“This settlement is not justice,” he said.

Spellman requested the city pay for the legal fees the aldermen incurred. He suggested many failed the situation, including the city attorney and Walworth County court system. Spellman also asked “What did the city do to pay the developers $3.8 million?”

Linn Township resident Richard Malmin, who is a friend of the suspended aldermen, voiced his opinion Monday night during public comments.

“The turmoil and hostilities have created a toxic environment for the community,” Malmin said. “People are afraid to become involved for fear of litigation and personal hardship and the nightmare possibility of media persecution.”

He said the aldermen involved in this settlement made the choice to get involved in the community in the spirit of giving back. He said citizens must be able to do that without the fear that their good character and finances are put at risk in the legal system and the media.

Malmin suggested paying the alderman’s out of pocket attorney fees as a way he believed would bring the community together and send a message to the city and its residents that “Lake Geneva is a fair-minded and protects its well intentioned public servants.”

Council members unanimously approved the settlement and didn’t discuss the issue any further.

City won summary judgement

In November, Judge James Carlson concluded the state statute did not apply to the elected officials because of their participation in an injunctive procedure.

He wrote the statute “only applies to defendants in litigation; plaintiffs initiated the injunctive proceeding and were not defendants.” He also wrote the charges and what happened related to them were not court proceedings nor litigation and because of that are not part of the statute.

In all, the firm Godfrey and Kahn submitted bills to the aldermen for a total of $62,123, while attorney David C. Williams submitted bills totaling $27,469 and attorney David Rasmussen’s bill was $2,100.

What happened?

On Sept. 9, 2009, Mayor Bill Chesen filed charges against then aldermen Krohn, Fesenmaier, Spellman and Roehrer.

He suspended them for alleged “neglect of duties, inefficiency, misconduct and violations of open meeting laws.” At that time, Chesen said the charges stemmed from the Aug. 24, 2009, council meeting in which Spyro “Speedo” Condos was appointed to fill a vacant aldermanic seat previously held by Gary Dunham.

Prior to their suspensions, the four aldermen voted in favor of the appointment of Condos. At the time Chesen said they “committed open meetings law violations and had backdoor dealings.” Chesen claimed the aldermen “conspired” to appoint “their friend” Condos to the council and ignored state statute that calls for an election for the position.

However, Chesen made those comments despite some saying he was going to appoint his own choice to the seat. When the suspensions were made, a hearing also was set for the charges filed by Chesen. That’s when the four officials obtained counsel from Godfrey and Kahn and Williams to defend them in civil proceedings and to defend their aldermanic positions.

Later, Fesenmaier and Spellman hired Rasmussen to defend their aldermanic positions. The attorneys for the suspended aldermen filed action to have the aldermen reseated. The suspensions of Roehrer and Krohn were lifted and they returned to their seats on the council.

In a “mediation session” with former Walworth County Circuit Court Judge Michael Gibbs just before Thanksgiving 2009, Condos agreed to give up his council seat if Chesen would rescind his suspensions and return the two aldermen to their seats.