Try 3 months for $3

The Baraboo News Republic has filed a lawsuit against Sauk County, alleging government officials have improperly withheld public documents.

The lawsuit asks a judge to intervene in two instances in which the county has denied the newspaper access to documents requested under the state’s Open Records Law.

In one instance, officials declined to release emails between government employees involving the zoning case of a Spring Green man who was found dead in his trailer last year. In a separate matter, officials did not provide the application materials of applicants for the county’s top administrative job.

In both cases, county legal staff has argued the requested documents are legally exempt from disclosure.

The lawsuit names Interim Sauk County Corporation Counsel Debra O’Rourke and Personnel Department Director Michelle Posewitz as defendants.

O’Rourke said in an email that “the county will be vigorously defending the action.”

Zoning emails

The request for emails involved the zoning case of Christopher Scott Mueller, who was found dead inside his rural Spring Green trailer on Oct. 26, 2016.

The county deemed Mueller’s property a human health hazard nearly two years before his body was discovered, and eventually served him with orders to vacate the trailer. He never complied.

An ordinance says the county’s attorney has the “duty of prosecuting” people who violate such orders to enforce their removal from hazardous property.

Zoning staff notified Todd Liebman, the county’s corporation counsel at the time, that Mueller had missed a 30-day deadline to vacate the property. However, during the 10 months that followed until the day Mueller’s body was discovered, Liebman never filed legal action to enforce his removal.

The coroner listed Mueller’s official cause of death as “natural causes,” but said in an interview that he could not rule out environmental factors.

As part of a broad request for documents, the newspaper asked for copies of email exchanges between then-Administrative Coordinator Renae Fry and county zoning staff involving Mueller’s case.

The corporation counsel’s office has refused to turn over the emails, citing a state law that exempts “treatment records” from being disclosed to the public.

The newspaper also sought the emails of a former legal secretary who had been feeding Fry information about Liebman’s job performance.

In response to that request, the county attorney’s office turned over numerous emails, but heavily redacted one the secretary sent to Sauk County Board Chair Marty Krueger about a planning and zoning case. The county cited the same “treatment records” exemption for the redactions.

Candidate identities

The second contested denial involves a state law that requires public agencies to identify and release the application materials of “final candidates” for public office.

In the weeks that followed Mueller’s death, Fry was forced out after less than a year on the job. In December, she signed a controversial separation agreement that entitled her to a full year’s salary in exchange for her resignation.

The deal — which cost taxpayers about $135,000 — prohibited Fry from speaking openly about her departure to the media or anyone else. It also singled out Liebman and Krueger, and forbid them from disparaging Fry.

After the agreement was finalized, a Sauk County Board committee began the process of searching for Fry’s replacement. During a Dec. 29 meeting, the committee decided its first step should be to “review the list of finalists” from the prior search that ended in Fry’s hiring.

The next day, Krueger scheduled a meeting that went beyond that procedural step. The agenda included a closed session to interview a candidate and an open session item to recommend a hire.

“I put it on the agenda, so it can be done,” Krueger said at the time, when asked whether his agenda reflected the committee’s decided course of action.

Following a lengthy closed session, the committee recommended the appointment of former Sauk County Assistant Corporation Counsel Alene Kleczek Bolin. She was not among the six named finalists from the prior search, and this was the first time the public learned she was even a candidate.

However, committee members declined to discuss how they had arrived at their decision.

During an interview after the meeting, Kleczek Bolin disclosed that she had been an applicant during the prior search, although she was not one of the six finalists. She said Krueger invited her to coffee weeks before the new search even began to ask if she still wished to be considered for the position.

Candidates who were among the six named finalists from the prior search told the newspaper that no one from the county had reached out to them to ask if they still wished to be considered.

Weeks later, during a Jan. 17 county board meeting to confirm Kleczek Bolin’s appointment, Vice Chairwoman Joan Fordham of Baraboo sought to dispel concerns that Krueger had manipulated the hiring process.

She said there actually had been “10 finalists” during the prior search, but that the committee only chose to interview six of them. Kleczek Bolin was one of the remaining four, whose identities were not disclosed the first time around.

Fordham and Kreuger said the other three other unnamed finalists no longer wished to be considered for the position, or had taken other jobs. Therefore, Kleczek Bolin was the only one who was interviewed in the most recent search.

Kleczek Bolin also also had moved on. She was working in the county attorney’s office when she first applied to become administrative coordinator, and had since accepted a job as the Baraboo City Attorney.

The newspaper has sought to contact the three remaining unnamed finalists to ask whether they too were given an opportunity to be reconsidered for the position. However, the county has not identified them or provided their application materials upon request.

In an email to the newspaper’s attorney, Liebman said Fordham was incorrect when she labeled the unnamed candidates as “finalists.” He said the three candidates the newspaper wishes to contact were never finalists, and therefore do not have to be identified under the law.

Liebman said there were “only six finalists” during the first search. “There was one finalist in January. She was hired,” Liebman wrote. He also said the county does not possess documents related to the three unnamed candidates.

A video of the Jan. 17 meeting shows Liebman was sitting next to Fordham when she made her remarks. He did not correct her at that time.

Capital Newspapers Regional Editor Todd Krysiak said filing a lawsuit was a last resort. The newspaper has sought the information through usual channels, such as interviews and open records requests.

“Unfortunately, those efforts were thwarted and the courts are the only remaining option to ensure the public has proper access to information and decisions made by government officials on behalf of the county’s taxpayers,” Krysiak said.

Follow Tim Damos on Twitter @timdamos