RACINE - The city will fully cover the mayor's legal costs and any damages if he loses a slander lawsuit against him -- on one condition.
Mayor John Dickert has to sign a letter saying he will pay all costs himself if the judge rules he was not acting in official capacity or within the scope of his duties.
After a long, contentious debate, the City Council late Tuesday night voted 14-1 to only cover the full legal costs and any damages in the suit under that condition, proposed by Alderman Eric Marcus. Alderwoman Sandy Weidner was the sole dissenter. She could not immediately be reached for comment after the meeting.
Dickert, who was not at the meeting Tuesday, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. His attorney Michael Cohen declined to comment on the council's decision, saying he hasn't seen such a letter or had a chance to discuss it with Dickert.
Marcus, a former attorney, presented the idea to withhold indemnification until a judge's ruling on the issue: "I just think we need to protect the taxpayers."
Dickert had asked for the city to assume the cost of his legal costs and any damages in the slander lawsuit brought against him by former city employee William Bielefeldt over comments Dickert made on a radio program.
In his presentation to council members, Deputy City Attorney Scott Letteney cited statutes that require a municipality to cover attorney fees and any judgments against an employee acting in his official capacity or for actions taken within scope of duties.
Initially, council members objected to Marcus' presentation, expressing concerns such as how he is named in the suit's legal documents a few times, which state Bielefeldt became aware of Dickert's comments on the radio program from a party who was told by Marcus.
Marcus said he's not a party to the suit and that he merely wanted to present "a rebuttal" to Letteney's presentation to give council members an alternative.
After some heated exchanges, and a brief recess, Marcus was allowed to make his Powerpoint presentation.
Alderman Mike Shields, the sole dissenter in last week's Executive Committee decision to indemnify the mayor, said it is not clear whether the mayor was acting in his official capacity, adding: "I think we need some assurance."
Weidner said Wednesday that she believed the mayor was acting as a candidate, not in his official capacity, at the time of his radio comments and disagreed with a portion of the amended, four-part motion that includes admitting Dickert was acting within the scope of his official duties and therefore entitled to full indemnification if the preset condition is met.
There was never a question whether the mayor was acting in his official capacity, Letteney said during the meeting, until the issue came up at a May 18 motion hearing to dismiss the suit, because a notice of claim wasn't filed as required before a suit is filed against a city or city official. If a judge found the mayor was acting in his official capacity or within the scope of his duties, Letteney said, he believed the suit would be dismissed because there was no such notice.
Bielefeldt's attorney, Thomas Santarelli, has said that Dickert was campaigning for re-election at the time of the broadcast and thus was not representing the city.
Bielefeldt sued Dickert in February for an unspecified dollar amount, claiming Dickert defamed him in comments he made while discussing the city's Neighborhood Stabilization Program as a guest on WRJN (1400 AM) on Feb. 12.
"We found somebody embezzling in the City of Racine and I fired him," the suit quotes Dickert as saying.
Bielefeldt had been fired from his job as a housing technician for "gross negligence," according to the city. Bielefeldt stated in the suit he was the only employee from the program who was fired, and he disputes the reported allegation.
Aldermen also questioned Bielefeldt's claim that Dickert was not acting in his mayoral capacity, citing Bielefeldt's statement in a legal document that it's bad for one's reputation to have a "public official" make such comments about an individual.
In the suit, a scheduling conference is set for Aug. 5 before Kenosha County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Schroeder.