RACINE — It all started with a PowerPoint.
Concerned about what could have been considered classified communications being shared with members of the public, in August 2017, Racine City Attorney Scott Letteney led a behind-closed-doors meeting with the City Council. During that meeting, a PowerPoint slideshow was shown. It contained 70-plus slides depicting communications between city staff and three aldermen that were later shared by aldermen with members of the public.
Letteney asserted those messages should not have been shared with the public, and were confidential communications between elected city officials and appointed city officials that should not have been public knowledge.
That one meeting has sparked a series of court hearings in multiple courts, at least one gag order, a prolonged records request being fought by city administration, more than $200,000 in taxpayer dollars being spent on attorney’s fees and on Wednesday a Wisconsin Court of Appeals decision that’s been applauded by open records advocates.
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And what was that decision? That a former alderman and her attorney should be allowed to have a copy of a PowerPoint they have already seen.
The former alderman, Sandy Weidner, said she still isn’t sure what’s next in the case.
“My interpretation (of Wednesday’s ruling) is that my open records request should have been granted back when I first made it back in 2017,” she said in a phone interview.
The court ruled Wednesday: “The City argues that the entire PowerPoint is privileged. However, we (the Court of Appeals) need not reach that issue because assuming the entire PowerPoint is privileged, the City waived the privilege by its voluntary actions in showing the PowerPoint at the meeting where Weidner was present … Given these facts, and the fact that Weidner actually attended the meeting without objection, we determine that the City waived any claim to attorney-client privilege for the PowerPoint with respect to Weidner.”
A status hearing in the Kenosha County Circuit Court is scheduled for 9 a.m. Aug. 17 in front of Judge Chad G. Kerkman; the case had originally been in front of Racine County Circuit Court Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz, who had previously sealed the case. A total of four different judges have presided over the case so far.
Bill Lueders, who heads the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, wrote in a newsletter reacting to Wednesday’s decision “a state appellate court found that the City of Racine was wrong to deny access to records it had shared during a presentation to an alderperson who requested them. Congratulations to Sandra Weidner for her defense of the public’s right to know, and to the court of appeals for at long last getting this one right.”
PowerPoint still semi-secret
The August 2017 closed-door meeting was held in the midst of Weidner’s mayoral run, a race eventually won by Cory Mason. Letteney had said he planned to refer aldermen to the Board of Ethics to review the communications, but no reprimand ever resulted.
Months after the closed-door meeting, Weidner, who was still an alderman at the time prior to not seeking reelection in 2020, requested a copy of the PowerPoint presentation. She said the majority of the slideshow was directed at her own communications with constituents.
Letteney’s office denied Weidner’s request, claiming the PowerPoint couldn’t be shared with Weidner because of attorney-client privilege, even though Weidner had already been shown the presentation; in this case, “client” would refer to the aldermen.
Several of the emails known to have been included in the PowerPoint do not appear to be what would normally be considered private information that should not be available to the public. One of them was an email sent to a former Journal Times reporter about scheduling for a public meeting. Another of them reportedly was about a separate PowerPoint presentation that would be shown at a public meeting.
Weidner appealed the denial to the records request to the Racine County Circuit Court.
The case gets more complicated, convoluted and expensive from there.
Weidner’s appeal to the open records request being denied was sealed by Judge Gasiorkiewicz, preventing the public from having any way of knowing about it. The case was originally filed Nov. 29, 2017, it was later revealed.
The case entered public knowledge when Weidner spoke to the press about it in October 2018.
As a result of ignoring the seal on the case, Weidner was placed under a gag order from Gasiorkiewicz that aimed to bar her from talking about the case, although she has still spoken with both The Journal Times and the Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel about the case since — including in the past week.
Weidner said she would rather be jailed than pay the potential tens of thousands of dollars in fines associated with violating a gag order placed on the case by Gasiorkiewicz. She has spoken with both The Journal Times and the Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel about the situation since — including in the past week — but she attests she has never spoken "anything in my case that had been sealed, the content of the emails or what transpired in Judge Gasiokeiwicz's (sic) sealed courtroom," she said in an email Sunday.
“I believe this is a huge win not for Sandy Weidner, but for the residents of this city because it means citizens of this city can get information from their officials that they asked for,” Weidner said in a phone interview last week. “This is about (elected officials) being able to communicate with your constituents.”
In July 2020, Judge Kerkman ordered that the PowerPoint be released “in camera,” which essentially means “in private” and away from the public eye, for attorneys’ eyes only.
The emails later presented to the board of ethics, Weidner's attorney reported, ended up not exactly matching those that were within the original PowerPoint.
It was later realized that there were two similar but different versions of the PowerPoint, and the City Attorney’s Office said it “cannot confirm” which version of the PowerPoint is the original, according to Wednesday’s Court of Appeals decision.
Originally, Kerkman found that the difference in the two PowerPoints “would not impact” the court’s ruling, and also that Weidner had missed a deadline for a legal response, and for a second time dismissed Weidner’s complaint.
That dismissal was then appealed to the Court of Appeals; the decision in that appeal is what was issued Wednesday.
Weidner estimates she has personally spent around $40,000 on the case so far, “and counting.”
“The taxpayers are paying Scott Letteney’s attorney fees,” Weidner said. An outside firm, Meissner Tierney Fisher & Nichols S.C. of Milwaukee, is working the case on behalf of the City of Racine.
Letteney told The Journal Times that, as of the last invoice, the city has spent $201,312.83 so far on the case. As of May 2020, $129,000 had been spent.
Weidner accused Letteney of creating the initial PowerPoint in an attempt to embarrass her and pressure her to stop talking about Machinery Row — the failed project to redevelop Water Street into mixed-use buildings that began when Dickert was mayor, effectively sending hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not millions) down the drain.
Letteney said Weidner’s allegations are untrue.
In an email to a Journal Times reporter Thursday evening, Letteney said “It is factually inaccurate to suggest that any city attorney may call a meeting of any governmental body of the City of Racine, including the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee meets only at the call of the mayor of the City of Racine. At the time, Denis Wiser was the mayor. Moreover, there is no merit to Ms. Weidner’s contention that issue raised before the executive committee was intended to silence or embarrass her.”
Weidner told a reporter that the purpose of the original meeting was to “scare the s*** out of those aldermen, making them afraid to communicate with their constituents.”
In 2019, as a result of this case, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council awarded Weidner with its Whistleblower of the Year award and awarded Letteney with its “Nopee: No Friend of Openness” faux award.
Two corrections have been made in this story regarding who viewed the PowerPoint "in camera" and regarding how the case has been spoken about since an initial gag order.