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Future cloudy for Lake Geneva government

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Kayla Bunge
September 16, 2009
— Lake Geneva doesn't have a functioning city council, and nobody is sure about the next step.

Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said Lake Geneva is in "relatively unusual" legal territory.


"There are all sorts of differences of opinion between mayors and council members… That's democracy. That part is not unusual," he said. "What we tend not to have as often is those differences of opinion being settled by a judge. But that appears to be where we are headed in this instance."


Mayor Bill Chesen said he's willing to wait for a Walworth County judge to take action.


Chesen on Thursday suspended council members Mary Jo Fesenmaier, Arleen Krohn, Penny Roehrer and Tom Spellman on accusations of neglecting their duties, misconduct and violating the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law.


Chesen on Monday night tried to appoint four people to replace them, but the council failed to raise a quorum, putting the appointments on hold.


"The people have been ignored," Chesen said Tuesday. "Their wishes have been ignored for a long time. The people have lost control of their government."


David Williams, an attorney representing four suspended Lake Geneva City Council members, on Monday morning filed papers asking for immediate reinstatement of the suspended council members. He also filed a motion for a restraining order and a temporary injunction to prevent Chesen from appointing replacements for the suspended council members.


A judge Monday declined to act without a formal hearing including both parties.


On Tuesday, Williams said he intends to file a new motion in court seeking reinstatement of the council members and blocking the mayor from appointing replacements. Williams said he hopes the court will hear the case before Wednesday, Sept. 23, when the city council is scheduled to hold a hearing about the suspended council members.


Chesen said state statutes grant the mayor an "incredible amount of power" to suspend council members against whom charges are pending and to appoint replacements to fulfill their duties until such charges are disposed.


"State statutes say the mayor may remove and the mayor may appoint," he said. "They don't say anything about the council may approve."


Chesen said he could have taken advantage of that "incredible" power, but he chose not to.


"If I were a bully, that's what I'd do," he said. "But do I want to do that? Do I want to play that game? I guess I'm willing to sit and wait a little bit and see what's going to happen."


But Spellman, one of the four suspended council members, said Chesen could resolve the matter simply by reinstating the suspended council members—a move that would take much less time and cost much less money than if a judge were to force him to reinstate them, he said.


"It's very clear that the ball is in his court," he said.


Kyle Gulya, the independent attorney representing the city, declined to comment on the next steps in the matter, citing the pending court action.


He has suggested the four city council members who are not suspended meet with him in closed session to discuss the situation.


"Advising the city in this matter, I believe, needs to be done in closed session because litigation has been initiated … and it relates to the removal process," he said. "I don't want to do anything to compromise the best interests of the city."


City Clerk Diana Dykstra said in an e-mail a special closed-session meeting is scheduled for Monday.


Dykstra said she could not comment whether a hearing for the suspended council members scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 23, still is on the calendar.


Chesen said Tuesday he has been threatened as a result of his actions against the four council members.


"This is not something I wanted to do," he said. "I knew the firestorm it would create. I knew the difficulties it would entail. But I never thought it would get to people literally walking up to me in the chambers of City Hall saying, ‘You better watch your back.'"


Chesen could face recall, too.


Ed Yaeger, a former alderman, took out papers that would allow Yaeger to circulate a recall petition, but he has not yet returned them.


"I'm doing my homework," he said. "I wanted to know the process … but it depends on what happens next."


Chesen said he is willing to step down if it will restore order to the city.


"I feel terrible for the people. I feel very, very sorry for them that their government has ignored them…" he said. "But I can't do it (stand up for the people) alone.


"If it will change things, I'll step down. They don't need to recall me. If they will just let representative government go back into place, I'll step down."



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