Jan Chesmore, an also-ran in the Janesville City Council race, gave a rambling speech at the April 22 city council meeting, and anyone who heard it should have realized it didn’t warrant a response.
She accused City Manager Mark Freitag of visiting polls on Election Day and engaging in electioneering, a misdemeanor. Nobody is allowed to “shake hands and kiss babies” at the polls, she said.
It might have been a damning allegation except that Chesmore doesn’t possess an ounce of credibility. She was obviously disgruntled over getting shellacked in the election—losing by about 1,300 votes. Losers sometimes lash out, and she turned her defeat into sour grapes.
Freitag should have ignored the speech like most everybody else did. Instead, Freitag drew attention to Chesmore by having his personal attorney send Chesmore a cease-and-desist letter. Rather than squelching the situation, getting his lawyer involved likely made more people wonder: Where was Freitag on Election Day? Why would Freitag so badly want to silence her?
Does Chesmore have a point?
No, she doesn’t. But people who knew nothing about her remarks learned about them in our Wednesday edition, Page 3A. Ironically, Freitag’s cease-and-desist letter gave Chesmore a bully-pulpit.
A city manager must rise above petty politics and cheap shots, such as Chesmore’s. But by turning to an attorney over such a trivial incident, Freitag looks like he has thin skin.
Unfortunately, he’s not the only one. Maybe he got the idea from other local leaders who’ve recently enlisted attorneys to tamp down criticisms.
Remember the former CEO of the YMCA of Northern Rock County, Tom Den Boer?
He paraded out his lawyer amid criticism about how he had been running the YMCA, and his lawyer issued a not-so-subtle threat to Den Boer’s critics, stating “allegations being leveled at Dr. Den Boer are tantamount to defamation.”
Then there’s the Milton School District director of administrative operations, Jerry Schuetz, who used his personal attorney to go after one of his critics on the school board, Brian Kvapil. Schuetz’s attorney sent a cease-and-desist letter to Kvapil, declaring statements Kvapil made about Schuetz have harmed his reputation and caused his family “significant emotional distress.”
When public officials or public figures run to their attorneys for help, it can become counterproductive. Heavy-handed legal action can have the opposite of its intended effect, lending legitimacy to the critics’ claims.
The threshold for libeling a public official or public figure is much higher than for a private citizen. When people step into the public arena, they should expect criticism to fly. Some of that criticism is justified, and some of it’s off base. Most people know the difference.
Our advice to local officials: If you can’t ignore the criticism, speak up and defend yourself, but don’t hide behind a lawyer.