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Judge orders Sauk County to release records to newspaper

A photo taken by Sauk County zoning inspector Steve Sorenson shows Christopher S. Mueller's cluttered trailer in the town of Bear Creek, where Mueller was found dead Oct. 26, 2016.

A judge has ordered Sauk County officials to turn over documents to the Baraboo News Republic that previously were withheld from the newspaper.

In a 32-page decision filed Friday, an out-of-county judge sharply criticized the government over several of its record denials. The newspaper filed a lawsuit against the county over the documents in November 2017.

“The Court finds that the (county) fails to understand that the release of records is the presumption,” Green Lake County Circuit Court Judge Mark Slate wrote about the county’s redactions to an email. “Their actions seem to be the opposite. That a record is not releasable unless someone can prove it should be released.”

The lawsuit involves multiple record requests the newspaper filed with the county in late 2016 and early 2017. The documents sought were related to the case of a man who died on property the government deemed a health hazard and controversies over the hiring and firing of the county’s top administrative official.

It is not yet clear whether the county intends to turn over the records. The government may decide to contest the ruling.

“The County is evaluating the Court’s decision and considering its options moving forward,” Sauk County Administrative Coordinator Alene Kleczek Bolin said in an email Tuesday.

Slate ordered the county to disclose the contents of emails involving the case of Christopher S. Mueller, who was found dead Oct. 26, 2016, at age 64 on a mattress inside his cluttered trailer.

The government had deemed Mueller’s town of Bear Creek property a public health hazard nearly two years earlier and ordered him to leave. He ignored the order, and a zoning inspector who repeatedly visited the property documented Mueller’s poor health and mental condition.

Although an ordinance said the county’s attorney at the time, Todd Liebman, had a duty to enforce Mueller’s removal from the property, he never did. Liebman said his inaction was intentional and due to concern for Mueller’s well-being, not negligence.

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Key dates in Christopher Scott Mueller case

The county redacted emails among Liebman and other officials about Mueller’s death, saying the information was protected by attorney-client privilege.

In his ruling, Slate rejected the county’s argument that all communications involving an attorney are exempt from disclosure under the state’s Open Records Law. If courts were to accept that argument, Slate wrote, government officials could “side-step the open records law” simply by copying their attorneys on all emails.

“The emails that were redacted do not even appear to be asking corporation counsel a question, much less seeking legal services,” the judge wrote.

Slate ordered the county to provide additional portions of a redacted email that a legal secretary sent to then-Sauk County Board Chairman Marty Krueger of Reedsburg about the Mueller case. The email was sent five weeks before Mueller was found dead.

Portions of the email “should not have been redacted and do not fall within any exemption,” the judge ruled.

However, he left open the possibility that an additional section of the email, which the county has deemed treatment information, may remain redacted. Regarding that section, Slate ordered the county to determine whether the information the secretary shared with Krueger could have been gleaned from a zoning file.

If the information could have been known to the secretary through a zoning record — rather than a treatment record — then the email was improperly redacted, the judge ruled.

Slate also ordered the county to turn over documents involving exit interviews with employees who left the county’s legal office. The newspaper sought those records as part of its investigation of the Mueller case and other matters.

“If the government is going to seek information on how it works, it needs to allow that information to be obtained, not hide it,” the judge wrote about the exit interview documents.

Slate ruled the county does not have to turn over certain emails that he reviewed in chamber, which he said contained a human services employee’s case notes.

Administrative coordinator documents

The judge also ordered the county to renew its effort to locate emails involving the job performance and departure of former Sauk County Administrative Coordinator Renae Fry. She left the county in December 2016 under a deal that granted her a full year’s salary in exchange for her resignation.

Terms of the agreement swore Fry, Krueger and Liebman to secrecy. It cost taxpayers $135,000, but prevented the public from learning the reasons behind her departure.

In his decision, Slate left several matters unresolved and requested further proceedings. Those included whether the county must identify a candidate for its top administrative job, and whether the government must pay the newspaper’s attorney fees.

Follow Tim Damos on Twitter @timdamos or contact him at 608-745-3513.

Baraboo News Republic reporter