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Is Lake Geneva City Council divided over development?

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Kayla Bunge
September 17, 2009
— Some of those involved in the ongoing political wrangling in Lake Geneva say it boils down to development supporters against development opponents.

Others say development is a “red herring” being used to distract attention from the unethical behavior of suspended council members.


For several years, the city council was split on development, and the mayor held the tie-breaking vote.


But the Aug. 24 appointment of Spyro “Speedo” Condos to the council created a clear majority against development.


Some of those involved believe Mayor Bill Chesen suspended council members Mary Jo Fesenmaier, Arleen Krohn, Penny Roehrer and Tom Spellman because they tend to disagree with him about development.


They say Chesen planned to appoint four others to stack the council with people who agree with him.


“That’s the impetus behind this,” Condos said. “This whole thing is all about lining up votes for future developments and future annexations, and the ones who were thrown out are the ones who ask a lot of questions.


“There are a lot of things waiting … waiting to see what happens with all the smoke that’s going on.”


But not everybody agrees that development is the root issue.


“I think that’s just a red herring,” said Larry Magee, one of the four men Chesen has put forward to replace the suspended council members.


He said the suspended council members are trying to distract people from the fact that they voted to appoint Condos to the city council instead of voting to hold a special election to fill the vacant seat.


“This fight has little to do with growth or development,” said Micheal “Mac” McBride, another of the four men Chesen has named as a replacement. “This fight has to do with ‘Speedo’ Condos trying to get back into an elected office that he can’t get legitimately. … It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see who’s in control of this group.”


Magee and McBride said when Chesen asked them to temporarily serve on the city council, they agreed—not to restore a pro-development majority, but to help get the city moving.


“I never have been and never will be part of any group or clique,” McBride said. “I’ve always worked for what I thought were the best interests of the city. …and I said, for the welfare of the city, I would (sit on the council).”


The Gazette was not able to reach Chesen for comment Wednesday. He previously said he suspended the council members for misconduct, and he didn’t mention development.


Mirbeau-Hummel

Condos, Spellman and others believe the battle between the mayor and the suspended council members stems from the proposed Mirbeau-Hummel development, a plan that called for a hotel, winery and homes on 710 acres on the city’s south side.


Voters in April 2008 overwhelmingly defeated the plan in a nonbinding referendum, and the city council unanimously turned it down a few weeks later.


Mirbeau of Geneva Lake, half of the former group that proposed the development, filed a $29 million federal lawsuit against the city for damages caused by the decision. The lawsuit still is pending in court.


Spellman said Chesen and others who have served alongside him on the city council, have a track record of “voting in” development supporters—and it started about the time the Mirbeau-Hummel development was in play.


First, Todd Krause, who previously served on the plan commission, was appointed to the city council to fill a vacant seat. He already had been through the first public hearing for Mirbeau-Hummel, Spellman said.


Then, Dennis Lyon was appointed to the plan commission to fill the seat formerly held by Krause. That was just days before the second public hearing for Mirbeau-Hummel, Spellman said.


Then, Ted Horne was appointed to the plan commission to replace Don Rutkowski, who had voted against the Mirbeau-Hummel plan, Spellman said.


Spellman said the appointment of Condos to the city council Aug. 24 tipped the scales, sending Chesen looking for a way to again secure the votes needed to push through his agenda.


“That’s the raw politics behind it,” he said. “They’ve always had the votes. But they no longer have those votes. … There clearly are five people (Condos and the four suspended council members) who view development in a less attractive way than other people as demonstrated by their records.”


Spellman said three of the four people Chesen planned to appoint to replace the suspended council members are known development supporters.


‘Grace in between’

Chesen said at a special city council meeting Monday night that it is not in his nature to “sit by quietly and watch injustice occur.” He said he suspended the four council members after exhausting all alternatives to address their behavior, and he was using the power granted to him by state statutes.


A Walworth County judge on Tuesday will consider a request from the four suspended council members to reinstate them and to block Chesen from appointing replacements.


But for now, Lake Geneva is bitterly divided.


“It cuts through this town,” Spellman said. “What we need is a mediator … and maybe a mediator can begin to talk and get the two sides of the town to understand that it’s not all what and why.


“There has to be some grace in between.”


COURT HEARING SET

Four suspended Lake Geneva alders will have their day in court Tuesday.


Mayor Bill Chesen last week suspended Mary Jo Fesenmaier, Arleen Krohn, Penny Roehrer and Tom Spellman pending a hearing before the council next week.


Attorney David Williams, who represents the four, on Monday filed a suit asking for their reinstatement and asking that Chesen be blocked from appointing replacements to the seats.


Williams originally filed a temporary restraining order and injunction that requested the court to take action on the matter without the presence of the other parties—the mayor and his four appointees for the council seats.


Judge John Race declined to act on the matter Monday without a hearing involving all the parties.


Williams the next day filed a modified motion, which is scheduled for a hearing at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.


The legal battle appears to be the only alternative to bring the Lake Geneva City Council back to functionality. With four members suspended, the council cannot raise a quorum.


-Pedro Oliveira

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