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Milton backpedaling on choice for annexation lawyer

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Neil Johnson
February 11, 2014

MILTON—The city of Milton is backing away from hiring a lawyer it wanted help deal with a potential annexation in the proposed 1,500-acre Evermor development along County M.

The lawyer, Tim Fenner, works for Axley Brynelson, a Madison law firm that also represents Jeffrey Helgesen, a Janesville developer involved in the Evermor development.

City Administrator Jerry Schuetz said this week he plans to recommend another attorney from a different firm to represent the city in a potential annexation request for the development deal, which is being proposed by landowner Bill Watson.

Helgesen's attorney, Charles “Buck” Sweeney, has appeared at municipal meetings and spoke on behalf of Helgesen at a town of Fulton meeting during a discussion of the Evermor development.

The city has been seeking an outside attorney to review the proposed annexation after City Attorney Mark Schroeder removed himself from handling any part of the Evermor development.

Schroeder represents the city of Milton and the town of Fulton, which officials said they considered a conflict of interest because both municipalities are involved in discussions over the development.

The city had been in negotiations to hire Fenner, but those negotiations ended late last week, Schuetz said.

The city made the decision after The Gazette last week questioned whether Axley Brynelson's overlapping legal responsibilities would create a conflict of interest. A city council member, Don Vruwink, pressed the city early last week to dig for any potential conflicts of interest before hiring Fenner.

Schuetz told The Gazette in an email this week that Fenner said he does not consider the overlap a conflict, but that the city notified Fenner it's opting not to hire him.

Schuetz said the city was backing away from hiring Fenner and Axley Brynelson to handle the potential annexation request to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

“Even the mere perception of a conflict of interest caused concern for all of our elected officials and me. After consulting with Mayor (Brett) Frazier last night, I notified Mr. Fenner that even though not legally required to do so, his firm's service will not be utilized by the city of Milton in this matter. 

“It is important to all of our elected officials and I that we maintain the highest levels of integrity as we evaluate the (Evermor) project and its potential, and removing even the slightest appearance of a possible conflict of interest was just cause for the city to make this move,” Schuetz wrote.

Frazier said the city had asked a few municipalities to recommend attorneys qualified to handle large annexation proposals, and Fenner's name made the city's short list. Frazier said the council liked Fenner as a candidate because he has represented both local governments and developers in annexation and development deals.

Frazier said the city is eager to hire an attorney to cover its legal interests in the emerging Evermor development proposal. But he said it's crucial the city remains independent as it considers Watson's proposal.     

“I can't be any more clear about this. Our (the city's and the developer's) interests certainly at some point may align, but it is critically important to our city that our legal representation represents only us,” Frazier said.

As of Tuesday, Watson had not submitted an annexation petition. Watson has said he's been working to get key landowners with properties adjacent to the city of Milton to sign onto the petition.



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