Secrecy in government, compounded by court-ordered secrecy, gives rise to speculation and rumor. That never serves the public interest.
The now long-running feud between City Attorney Scott Letteney and Racine Alderman Sandy Weidner illustrates that very well. In a circuitous dispute that began more than a year ago, the city attorney last August sought an ethics violation sanction against the alderman — and two other as yet unnamed aldermen — for allegedly sharing confidential or privileged communications from his office with constituents.
Letteney called for a closed meeting of the Executive Committee of the City Council and asked all aldermen to attend and presented a PowerPoint presentation of about 30 slides, most of which were emails from Weidner to constituents, but two involved communications from other aldermen, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. The committee referred the matter to the Ethics Board for an advisory opinion.
This is where things went off the rails and ended up in the lap of Racine County Circuit Court Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz, who sealed the case in February — forbidding its release to the public — and then earlier this month sanctioned Weidner for contempt of court for talking with reporters from the Journal Sentinel and the Associated Press in September about the case.
The byzantine and tortured path the dispute took to go before the court goes something like this. Weidner fought back against the possible ethics sanction and asked Letteney for a copy of his PowerPoint slides on the emails. Letteney declined, saying they were presented in closed session of the Executive Committee. Weidner filed a request for those records under the state’s open records law. Letteney denied that as well and Weidner filed suit in Circuit Court.
When the open records suit came before Judge Gasiorkiewicz, he took the unusual step of sealing the entire case. The judge told a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter in September that he sealed the case “because of the nature of the action. It’s one that shouldn’t be open. I made a public policy determination.”
He was asked: Wasn’t it an open records case? He replied: “I’m sorry, I can’t tell you. It’s sealed.”
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.
That’s where things stood until, in September, Weidner defied the judge’s order and talked to reporters, saying that nothing she had sent to her constituents, in her experience, was confidential.
“To him (Letteney), anything that comes into or out of the city attorney’s office is covered by the attorney client-privilege,” she said, a far more expansive interpretation than the law allows, according to a Journal Sentinel report on Sept. 20.
According to that report, Gasiorkiewicz’s decision and order “don’t seem to reveal anything specific. It refers to a different 48-page document that lays out 16 emails and only makes vague references to their contents as he decides whether each is privileged or not.”
For some emails, the judge held them confidential because “the content contains reflects (sic) thoughts and processes regarding various ongoing legal matters involving the City of Racine,” and he deemed that privileged.
Others emails he tossed out, including one seeking a copy of a resolution creating the Redevelopment Authority, of which the judge said “nothing about this email or its contents reflect legal processes or thoughts.”
On another email, the judge held that the content was fully disclosed at a city Committee of the Whole meeting, which was videotaped and available for viewing on the city’s website. He tossed that one out, too.
Those decisions, of course, were under seal and were not to be made public. They only came out after Weidner talked publicly in September. Soon after that, Letteney and the City or Racine, represented by a Milwaukee law firm, promptly went back to court asked for a $15,000 sanction for violating the court seal.
Judge Gasiorkiewicz found Weidner guilty of civil contempt of court and ordered her to pay the city’s legal fees. Weidner’s attorneys are appealing the open-records case and the contempt charges to the Court of Appeals. That’s where this fracas currently stands.
All sorts of questions raised
As we said at the outset, this dust-up has taken a tortured and circuitous route, and has raised all sorts of speculation and questions throughout.
We can’t help but wonder why the city attorney, if he was simply trying to protect what he viewed as confidential legal communications from his office, didn’t just send a letter to city aldermen saying some recent communications had been mistakenly shared with constituents and to please be careful.
Yes, we understand that some city legal issues are legitimately confidential — things such as personnel issues, proposed contracts or city property purchases come to mind.
But if Letteney is arguing that all emails and communications that come from his office are top secret and not to be shared by aldermen, as Weidner alleges, we have a great deal of problem with that notion.
Perhaps the city attorney can clearly earmark those select and few communications that are not to be shared with constituents by aldermen. Such action, it would seem to us, could have enabled the whole court circus and the outside legal fees that have resulted in the past year to be avoided.
We would be remiss, as well, if we didn’t note that Letteney’s decision to seek a public sanction for an ethics violation by Alderman Weidner came as she was in the middle of a campaign for mayor, a contest she lost to now-Mayor Cory Mason, who received 54 percent of the vote. In politics, as in many things, timing is everything.
From what little we have seen of Weidner’s “egregious” emails through other media reports, most of them seem to be garden-variety legal issues and mundane, inconsequential communications from the City Attorney’s Office.
While it pains us, as an Editorial Board, to say this, we don’t know what we’re talking about.
That’s literally the truth, because the closed City Council session and the judge’s seal order have put these issues in a deep, dark hole, hidden from public view and impossible to judge.
We’re dismayed that the city attorney ever elevated it to a feud of this proportion. We’re dismayed, as well, that the court made a “public policy determination” to hide it from the public.
In our view such secrecy, on both levels, undermines the right of the public to assess how government officials are conducting public business.
We urge the Court of Appeals to set things straight, and we hope it does.