Lake Geneva council tables audit issue

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Kayla Bunge
Thursday, June 3, 2010
— Barbara Hartke and the more than 400 residents who signed a petition calling for an independent and comprehensive audit of city finances now have the option of bringing a court action against the city council to force it to adopt the proposal.

The Lake Geneva City Council at a special meeting Wednesday voted 6-2 to table the petition for direct legislation.

Hartke, who circulated the petition as part of her recent campaign for District 2 alderwoman, presented the petition to the council April 27. City Clerk Diana Dykstra certified the petition May 7.

The council had 30 days, which expired Wednesday, to decide whether to adopt the ordinance or send the proposal to referendum. The council in tabling the matter now could be subject to legal action that would force it to enact the legislation.

Hartke told the Gazette after the meeting that she and some of the people who signed the petition are going to consult with an attorney and explore their options before making a move.

“We’ve gotta figure out the right way to go,” she said.

The petition called for:

-- A moratorium on non-emergency spending and promises of contractual monetary obligations until the city can guarantee it has enough money to cover such actions.

-- An independent and comprehensive audit of city finances, including auxiliary agencies.

City Attorney Dan Draper in a recent memo to the council explained the direct legislation statute. He said the statute states that the clerk shall determine whether the petition is sufficient and whether the proposed ordinance or resolution is in proper form.

Some council members on Wednesday questioned what “sufficient” and “proper form” mean.

Draper explained that the clerk in certifying the petition or the council in considering the petition cannot make determinations on the content of the proposed legislation.

“The council doesn’t have the right to determine the constitutionality of the legislation. The direct legislation statute does not allow the council to make that decision,” he said. “The statute says it must be adopted without any changes, without any alterations.”

Draper explained that the only limitations on direct legislation are that it:

-- Must be legislative, not administrative or executive in nature.

-- Cannot repeal existing legislation.

-- May not exceed the legislative powers conferred upon the governing body.

-- May not modify procedures or standards prescribed by statute.

Alderwoman Mary Jo Fesenmaier asked what criteria were used to determine whether the petition is sufficient and in proper form.

Dykstra explained that she consulted with the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. She said she checked that all signatures were those of city residents and checked that a copy of the proposed resolution was attached to each petition.

“Content and format are not something I have the authority to review,” she said.

Draper said the council seemed to be struggling with the language of the direct legislation statute.

“I don’t think you can deny it or try to defend denying it based on the language (of the proposed resolution),” he said.

“Direct legislation is very powerful. It gives people a lot of power to bring something before the people for action.”

Alderman Thomas Hartz said the matter is too complicated.

“It seems like it’s a bit of a trick bag,” he said. “I think if we pass it directly into ordinance form, then we have an ordinance I’m not sure what we’d do with it. … If we try to put it into a question for referendum, then we have to interpret what the petition meant.

“My inclination is just to take my hands off of it and let it sit there.”

Fesenmaier said those reasons illustrate why the petition should not have been certified.

“That’s why I would argue it’s not appropriate to have this before the council,” she said. “It’s not in proper form. We should be able to adopt it as is or put it on the ballot as is.”

Alderman Todd Krause moved to table the issue, and Alderman Frank Marsala seconded the motion. The council voted 6-2 to table the petition.

But Fesenmaier questioned whether an item could be tabled indefinitely.

Draper said items may be tabled and placed on a future meeting agenda for consideration—but any future meetings will be outside the 30-day window within which the council had to act.

Last updated: 2:12 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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