Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

Marra good example of upfront leadership
Reporting an "illegal" meeting was right thing to do

by John Halverson

December 27, 2012

John Marra deserves a pat on the back.

He did what you’d hope every responsible public official would do — he went out of his way to uphold the law.

Marra is president of the Williams Bay Village Board and was once involved in law enforcement. He wore both hats recently when he did all the right things in light of an “illegal” meeting held by the village’s Park’s and Lakefront Committee.

To be fair, there doesn’t appear to have been anything evil or shady about the meeting or even the circumstances.

The meeting, which was held Nov. 9, was “illegal” because the village clerk took her eye off the ball during the hectic election season and forgot to post the meeting, which she’s required to do.

The meeting itself didn’t deal with subjects anyone would want to cover up. Use of a village building for quilters and discussion of the Festival of Trees event hardly rise to Watergate levels. But the meeting was illegal nonetheless.

It went ahead at the behest of committee chair, Trustee Marsha Engquist, who admitted she’d made an error.

We know Engquist as a person of integrity. She’s also a “get it done” sort and that aspect of her personality trumped her judgment in this case. She was facing surgery a subsequent recuperation and felt approving the use of Edgewater Park for the Festival of Trees was business that needed to get done ASAP.

She didn’t realize that legally the meeting could have been posted and the committee could have met two hours after the posting that same day. After the fact, she was upfront about her lack of judgment.

“I didn’t think it through clearly and I was wrong,” she said.

The village clerk also admitted her error.

The man with the white hat in this story is Marra.

“This is not going to happen on my watch,” Marra said. “There was an obvious violation of the law.”

After learning of the “illegal” meeting, he jumped into action. He met with Engquist, the clerk and the village administrator in what was apparently a very heated closed-door meeting.

Marra reported his findings to the police department and sent a letter to the DA’s office detailing how the village had held an illegal meeting.

It’s human nature to want to cover up our errors. It’s nice to know in this case, Marra was upfront in admitting the village’s mistake.

Another public official might have just swept it under the carpet at that point. They might argue: It was an innocuous meeting, an unintentional error, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is that any violation sets a precedent.

People have a cynical view of government as it is. Villagers need to know that their government sticks to the letter of the law and doesn’t do backroom deals. They ought to be encouraged by Marra’s actions.

By contrast, the city of Lake Geneva officials deserve a mild reprimand for only releasing the Hummel settlement memo under the threat of a lawsuit.

The memo outlined the agreement between the city and Geneva Ridge Joint Venture to settle a multi-million law suit which had been haunting the city for several years. Geneva Ridge Joint Venture is owned by Robert Hummel, an Illinois developer, who wanted to develop 718 acres of city land near Big Foot State Park but was stymied by the city and sued.

At one point the city was under the cloud of $400 million in lawsuits. The settlement made those all go away except for about $4 million which was paid by the city’s insurance company.

That settlement came under a cloud because some were suspiciousness that Hummel only agreed to the deal if the city would change the land use designation on the city’s master plan.

City Attorney Dan Draper explained after the fact that there had been an agreement to put the master plan on the table for a vote but no obligation to approve it.

I won’t second guess the council for how it handled it. In the end, it saved the city a lot of money and headaches.

Still, there were nagging concerns among the cynics in the community — and Care for Lake Geneva Inc. is full of them — that there was something shady in the memo. As it turned out, it pretty much said what Draper said it did.

Yet the city kept it a secret, arguing it was “confidential” and subject to “attorney client privilege.”

The city said it always wanted to release the document but couldn’t because the developer objected.

They finally released it after the developer’s attorney didn’t reply or object to two messages from the city requesting the release.

But none of this happened until Care for Lake Geneva Inc. filed a lawsuit.

Why couldn’t this have taken place when the group originally requested its release or in the many months since the settlement occurred?

Frankly, I deserve some blame on this, too. Short of any good argument to the contrary we agree that the city had no right to withhold the document.

Just stamping something “confidential” doesn’t make it so.

We should have been aggressive in obtaining the memo, too, and I’m happy that Care for Lake Geneva took up the fight.

Now the city is facing a claim that Care for Lake Geneva should be reimbursed for its legal bills. The group took the high road in not asking for monetary damage. The city argues that the city “may” reimburse legal fees but it’s apparently inclined not to.

If the city had believed wholeheartedly that the memo should have been released and had nothing to hide, why didn’t they send those requests to the developer before Care had to take them to court?

As I’ve said before, I think the current city council is doing a good job and Mayor Jim Connors is showing wise leadership. And we haven’t always agreed with some of the members in Care for Lake Geneva, but in this case they were right and deserve to be reimbursed.

The city should stop getting itself into these legal quandaries and just be as upfront as possible even if it means going out of its way to shed as much light on its actions as possible.

John Marra did the right thing even though acknowledging an illegal meeting isn’t anything any government official wants to admit. He probably could have just talked to the parties involved and no one would have made a fuss.

But he was proactive in making sure that the village’s error — as minor as it might have been — was dealt with in an upfront manner.

He’s a good example of what government should be.

As we enter a new year, we hope all officials will follow his lead.

John Halverson is editor and general manager of the Lake Geneva Regional News.