Lake Geneva mayor wants aldermen ousted
LAKE GENEVA The Lake Geneva mayor is seeking removal of four aldermen, accusing them of neglecting their duties, misconduct and violation of the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law.
Mayor Bill Chesen on Thursday filed petitions for removal of council members Mary Jo Fesenmaier, Arleen Krohn, Penny Roehrer and Tom Spellman. He also immediately suspended the four aldermen, barring them from secure areas of City Hall and requiring them to relinquish their keys to City Hall offices.
It was unclear Thursday whether the suspended aldermen will be able to take their seats at the city council meeting Monday night.
The political pot started to boil in early August after 1st District Alderman Gary Dunham resigned.
The city council twice tried to meet to appoint a replacement, but it failed both times to raise quorum. Fesenmaier, Roehrer and Spellman were absent from both meetings. Fesenmaier and Roehrer were excused, but Spellman was not excused.
Chesen believes their absences were part of an effort to ensure the candidate of their preference—former mayor Spyro “Speedo” Condos—be appointed to fill the vacant seat.
Many residents called for a special election to fill the vacant seat.
Many others suggested the city council choose Condos to fill the position.
The council Aug. 24 narrowly voted to appoint Condos.
Chesen said what the aldermen did was unlawful.
“They failed to listen to the citizens … they ignored their pleas to not do this,” he said. “But they went forward with their little pact that they had made and appointed him.”
According to the petitions, each alderman has:
n “Created, by (his or her) acts or failure to act, inefficiencies for staff and the citizens of the city of Lake Geneva”
n “Either instigated or been a participant in meeting with other city council members, where city business has been discussed without proper notice being given to the public as required by law.”
According to the petitions, Roehrer and Spellman also have “been neglectful of (their) assigned duties by being absent and unexcused from committee or city council meetings.”
City Attorney Dan Draper said the aldermen should have received a copy of the paperwork filed Thursday afternoon. They also should have received notice that a hearing before the city council tentatively would be held Wednesday, Sept. 23, he said.
Draper said the aldermen have 10 days to respond in writing to the charges.
Krohn said she was “shocked to death” when she received a copy of the paperwork filed Thursday afternoon.
She said she is upset Chesen is accusing her of holding meetings at the Harborside Café, a downtown restaurant owned by Condos, along with Fesenmaier, Roehrer and Spellman, and conspiring to appoint Condos to the city council.
“That’s our personal life,” she said.
She and her husband are friends of the Condos family and have eaten at the restaurant for years, she said.
Krohn said the proceedings present a barrier to getting things done, starting with the regular city council meeting scheduled for Monday.
“We can’t do anything for the city, and yet, we have business to do,” she said. “This is not the way to handle a situation.”
Roehrer said she is confused by the action.
“I don’t quite understand it,” she said. “I don’t know what this law is … I find it strange the mayor could unseat four people and put in another four people and carry on.”
Roehrer maintains the accusations are false.
“To my knowledge, I haven’t done anything wrong,” she said. “I’ve just done some things that people don’t like and don’t agree with, but nothing wrong.”
Spellman said he is “puzzled” about the charges Chesen has brought against the aldermen.
“I don’t understand it,” he said. “He really has totally jeopardized the city. And he calls us reckless.
“What did we do to threaten the bedrock of democracy—to prompt him to do this?”
Fesenmaier said she had not yet received a copy of the paperwork as of about 5:15 p.m. Thursday.
Chesen brought the charges against the aldermen as a resident taxpayer, not as the mayor, as required under state statutes governing the removal of elected officials from office.
But he acted as mayor to suspend the aldermen as provided under state statutes. He has the option to appoint people to fill in for the aldermen while they are suspended.
“It is very difficult,” Chesen said. “The state statute is absolutely ridiculous in the power it has given to the mayor.
“This is a nuclear response to a small skirmish, but I have nothing else left … They forced me to do this. They have violated the law, and I am not going to stand by and let that happen.”
Chesen originally planned to file a complaint with the Walworth County District Attorney’s Office but chose not to because he would have had to seek criminal charges, which would have been difficult to prove.
“I only have actions and hearsay to use in a court of law,” he said. “I think everybody can clearly see what happened, but I don’t know if anyone can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Chesen said if criminal charges would have been brought against the aldermen, the city would have had to represent them in court and pay for their defense, and the city cannot afford that cost.
“I’m using the statutes … placed in my hands,” he said. “I’m not using them improperly. I’m not using them excessively, and I’m not doing it with any comfort whatsoever.”
Draper said he likely will represent the city in the matter. Chesen and the aldermen will have to retain their own attorneys, he said.
“I’m not exactly sure how it’s all going to shake out,” he said. “This is new. There’s not a lot of precedent.”