Janesville49.5°

Lake Geneva political fight getting costly

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Kayla Bunge
November 22, 2009
— Legal costs are mounting in the ongoing political battle between the mayor and the four city council members he has charged with violations.

No one is certain how high the bills are so far, but many people, including some attorneys, are banking on the city's insurance company, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities Mutual Insurance Company, to pay for a big chunk.


"My understanding is the insurance company is paying the bill for everything," Mayor Bill Chesen said.


Others aren't so sure.


Attorneys—a total of eight are involved—believe insurance will cover some of the legal fees, but how much is uncertain.


Chesen on Sept. 10 suspended council members Mary Jo Fesenmaier, Arleen Krohn, Penny Roehrer and Tom Spellman, accusing them of misconduct and violating the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law. He has accused Roehrer and Spellman also of neglecting their duties.


Chesen on Sept. 21 rescinded the suspensions of Roehrer and Krohn to restore quorum to the council, and the council on Sept. 23 approved Larry Magee and Sturges Taggart as replacements for Fesenmaier and Spellman, respectively.


The charges against all four council members still stand, and a removal hearing has been postponed until a special prosecutor is appointed.


Walworth County Judge Michael Gibbs last week scheduled a court-ordered mediation session for Wednesday in hopes the mayor and the four council members he charged can work out a resolution.


'It's a lot of money'

Many residents have spoken out against the rising cost of the political battle between the mayor and the four council members.


They say taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill for a difference of opinion between elected officials.


And they say it's a bill that likely stretches well into the tens of thousands of dollars after more than two months of public meetings and private consultations.


The attorneys—one for the city council; one for the mayor, city clerk and replacement council members; and four for the charged council members—declined to put an exact dollar amount on their services to date.


Kyle Gulya, the attorney advising the city council, estimated his bill at $16,000 for services rendered in September. He said his bills for October and November should be much lower.


"We were working to fix the problem, to get the city functioning again. There were a number of meetings to attend, so there was a high cost with that," he said. " … But now the council is up and running, and there is less of a need for us to be present."


He said his firm quoted the city a price of $7,000 to $15,000 for a removal hearing. He said there could be as many as four hearings—one for each charged council member.


Gulya, who was brought in by City Attorney Dan Draper to provide legal advice in his place, declined to say who would be responsible for paying him. Draper said the city would be responsible for paying the city attorney in a similar situation, and the city's insurance company wouldn't cover such matters.


"A removal action is an extraordinary matter," he said. " … Insurance doesn't cover these types of proceedings."


Joe Wirth, the attorney for the mayor, city clerk and replacement council members, said he does not know how much his services have amounted to so far.


"I don't have any numbers," he said. "I haven't done my first bill yet."


Wirth, who was appointed to the case by the city's insurance company, said the insurance company likely would cover the costs of attorneys for both parties, but the insurance company is reserving its right to later withdraw coverage if it finds any of the parties were ineligible for coverage.


"They're basically saying, 'We'll continue to defend you, but we reserve the right to pull the plug,'" he said.


David Williams, the attorney for the four charged council members, declined to estimate his bill to date without first getting his clients' approval.


"It's a lot of money. There's no question about that," he said.


Williams was hired by the four charged council members to file a court action to get them reinstated and to block the mayor from appointing replacements. He said the city's insurance company would cover only the cost of representing the four in removal hearings.


"But we consider the lawsuit, which is related to the conditions under which removal hearings would be held, an integral part of the charges filed against them," he said. "The city's insurance company disagrees with that."


Williams said the four council members would be responsible for paying the rest of the legal costs involved in the prosecution of their case against the mayor.


"Unless a court determines otherwise, unless a court determines the city or its insurance company are liable," he said.


Kendall Harrison, another attorney for the four charged council members, said he wouldn't be surprised if the council members seek reimbursement from the city for their legal costs.


"It is expensive," he said. "But whether it ultimately comes back to be paid for by the city is an open question."


More lawyers

The case between the mayor and the four council members isn't the only legal entanglement in which the city is involved.


Mirbeau of Geneva Lake and Illinois developer Robert Hummel, who together proposed the Mirbeau-Hummel development on 710 acres on the city's south side, each have filed federal lawsuits against the city.


Mirbeau is seeking $29 million, and Hummel is seeking more than $99.8 million.


The three cases originally did not appear to be related, but statements Chesen made during a deposition suggested otherwise, and as a result, the defense of city council members in the federal lawsuits was split between two attorneys.


Amy Doyle, who originally represented all city defendants in the cases, now only represents the four council members who the mayor has charged. Wirth represents the rest.



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