RACINE — Five media organizations are trying to intervene in the ongoing public records lawsuit between 6th District Alderman Sandy Weidner, the City of Racine and City Attorney Scott Letteney.
Last week, media organizations filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit, requesting that legal documents related to the case be unsealed.
The case was sealed in February by Racine County Circuit Court Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz, but began receiving media attention in September after Weidner spoke with the Associated Press and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about the issue.
“The big thing for everyone to understand: This is not a feud between myself and the city attorney,” Weidner told The Journal Times.
She said the issue arose as a result of “different understandings” of what is considered confidential by Letteney as compared to prior city attorneys. Letteney was appointed in summer 2015 after having served as a deputy city attorney for almost 10 years.
“This is one of the more extraordinary cases of excessive secrecy,” Bill Lueders, the president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, told The Journal Times. “We hope the appellate court will act quickly to reverse this case … (and) the poor decisions on part of a Racine judge.”
The five organizations filing the lawsuit are the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, the USA Today Network-Wisconsin, and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (which is distributed through USA Today Network-Wisconsin).
“The reasoning behind the Seal Orders and Open Records Decision remains unknown to the public. Indeed, all pleadings are under seal, and even the docket is unavailable for viewing by order of Judge Gasiorkiewicz,” the motion reads.
Lueders explained that the five media organizations came together for this motion for two main reasons: because they all have an interest in the case; and to pool resources so as to share the burden of legal fees.
“Obviously, we felt it was our duty and responsibility to join in on this appeal,” Wisconsin Newspaper Association Executive Director Beth Bennett said. “There’s no other case that is like this. There has to be some accountability.”
Weidner said she was ecstatic when she heard about the motion.
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“I am so grateful that they did that,” she said. “I’ve been in this alone.”
A closed meeting with City of Racine aldermen was called by Letteney in August 2017, according to the motion.
During the meeting, Letteney showed a PowerPoint presentation. He alleged that Weidner and two other unnamed aldermen had shared confidential and/or privileged information in emails with constituents.
Letteney called for the city’s Ethics Board to give an advisory opinion regarding the information shared in the emails.
Weidner told The Journal Times that she “never had an issue” with the matter being forwarded to the Ethics Board, but still felt the emails never should’ve been considered confidential.
Soon after the matter was forwarded to the Ethics Board, Weidner requested to receive a copy of the PowerPoint presentation that Letteney had presented at the meeting. That request was rejected, so Weidner filed an open records lawsuit.
“State open-records advocates say they have never heard of an open-records suit being sealed, or any kind of case without some record of who the parties are and why it was under seal,” The Journal Times Editorial Board wrote on Oct. 21. “Secrecy in government, compounded by court-ordered secrecy, gives rise to speculation and rumor. That never serves the public interest.”
“We never should have had to fight for access to these court records,” Lueders said.
On Oct. 3, Gasiorkiewicz found Weidner in contempt of court after she spoke about the case with the Journal Sentinel and Associated Press. The contempt of court hearing was open to the public, but the documents related to the case remained sealed.
“Even the scope of this appeal is not transparent,” reads the motion.
“If this judge’s decision stands, it’s not going to bode well for the media,” Weidner said.
The Journal Times submitted an open records request for invoices from Meissner, Tierney, Fischer & Nichols SC, the law office that represented the city in its contempt of court case against Weidner. The city attorney’s office confirmed the request was received.