I am very proud of the mission The Journal Times of Racine is undertaking regarding unearthing the details of a slander suit brought against Racine Mayor John Dickert. The reason for the request in opening these records has nothing to do with politics. It does, however, have everything to do with good government.
Former city employee William Bielefeldt had sued Dickert for slander, accusing the mayor of making inappropriate comments about him on the radio while Dickert was campaigning for re-election. Taxpayers paid the first $100,000 of Dickert’s legal fees before the city’s liability insurance kicked in.
There is general agreement that the settlement records should be open.
Deputy City Attorney Scott Lettney, who has represented the city and the mayor, said he thinks the city is obligated to comply with the newspaper’s request. However, because of the uncertainty, he wants a judge’s stamp of approval before doing so.
The city taxpayers who paid $100,000 for the mayor’s slander suit, brought against him by a former employee, do not know how it was settled. The Journal Times filed an open records request with the city and mayor contending: “Taxpayers of a community have the right to know how and why their money is spent,” as per a 1994 Wisconsin Court of Appeals decision.
And now Dickert, and possibly the city, is caught between the state open records law and the confidentiality clause he agreed to with former city employee William Bielefeldt, who has reportedly refused to release the settlement. The lawsuit filed Wednesday by the city and the mayor thus asks a judge “to issue a judgment declaring the responsibilities and duties of the parties regarding the release.”
The confidentiality clause prohibits either party from releasing the agreement or disclosing its terms subject to a set penalty unless both parties agree or by an order of a court, according to the complaint against Bielefeldt. It continues: “Dickert verily believes that he is required to release the requested record pursuant to the Wisconsin Public Records Law. However, Plaintiff Dickert also verily believes that if he releases such record he is bound by the confidentiality clause of the settlement agreement and will be subject to its penalty provision.”
I am again proud that a newspaper has stepped into the role of making sure the public interest is placed ahead of individual interests. I have long considered newspapers to be the public watchdogs when it comes to making sure government operates in the best interest of the citizenry.
Steve Lovejoy, the editor of The Journal Times, stood by his newspaper’s decision to push for the release of the records.
“We believe it is the public’s right to know what city officials are doing and what it is costing the taxpayers, whether it be for legal bills, insurance costs – now and down the road – or costs of settlements,” he said. “How else can the public judge whether city officials are acting in their best interests unless they conduct government in an open and honest manner?”
I am hoping that people see in this story not only the need to open the records in this particular case, but also the role that newspapers continually serve in our state and nation.