Press&Policy

Citizens group alleges City of Lake Geneva violated open meetings law

Posted in Open meetings law by foiguy on May 14, 2013

A citizens group sued the City of Lake Geneva Monday alleging it violated Wisconsin’s open meetings law.

The group, Care for Lake Geneva, claims that the Lake Geneva City Council illegally took action at a June 2011 meeting behind closed doors and without giving enough public notice. The complaint, filed in Walworth County Circuit Court, targets a memorandum of understanding the council approved at the meeting, which laid the groundwork for a legal settlement with a developer that had sued the city in 2009.

 

The lawsuit asks a judge to declare that the city violated the open meetings law, void the memorandum of understanding and reimburse the group for court costs and attorney’s fees.

 
 

Care for Lake Geneva’s lawsuit alleges the city council violated the open meetings law when it approved the memorandum in closed session. That vote, the group says, should have happened in public.

The suit also claims that the agenda for the June 2011 meeting did not sufficiently describe what would occur at the meeting. The notice in the agenda said the council intended to enter closed session to discuss the developer’s lawsuit and confer with the city’s lawyers.

The notice read, in relevant part: “Motion to go into Closed Session . . . to confer with legal counsel who is rendering oral or written advice concerning strategy to be adopted by the body with respect to litigation which it is or is likely to become involved in re: Geneva Ridge Joint Venture and Peller Investments, LLC.”

According to the minutes of the meeting, the council returned to open session and voted unanimously “to continue negotiations . . . in accordance with the terms discussed in closed session.”

But Care for Lake Geneva argues the city council did more. The group contends that the memorandum of understanding the council approved at the meeting also altered the city’s comprehensive master plan, an effect that should have been included in the public notice, the group says.

“The City Council violated Wis. Stat. § 19.84 by failing to provide public notice that it intended to convene a meeting during which it would vote to bind the City to amend the Comprehensive Master Plan,” the complaint reads.

On March 14, the group asked Walworth County District Attorney Daniel Necci to sue the city, but Necci declined, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit asks a judge to declare that the city violated the open meetings law, void the memorandum of understanding and reimburse the group for court costs and attorney’s fees.

The case stems from a botched development proposal and subsequent litigation that has lingered for years. An Illinois company had proposed developing more than 700 acres of rural land in Lake Geneva. But city officials thwarted the plan, and in 2009, the company filed a federal lawsuit against the city seeking more than $100 million. That lawsuit led city officials to approve the memorandum of understanding , which essentially identified the steps the city and developer would have to take to resolve the case. The suit was officially settled in September 2011.

This is not the first time Care for Lake Geneva has gone to court. The group sued the city in 2012 to obtain a copy of the memorandum of understanding, which the city eventually agreed to release in a settlement.

News organizations have also taken legal action to shed light on how the city handled the development proposal. The Lake Geneva Regional News sued an alderwoman in 2010 to obtain emails about the proposal. (A settlement was reached.) That same year, the Janesville Gazette sought an opinion from the state attorney general about access to similar records.

Care for Lake Geneva is represented by Foley & Lardner of Milwaukee.

Read the complaint

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