Scales of Justice

The owners of a Fitchburg business are suing the City Council for violating the state open meetings law after council members exchanged emails about a zoning change last year.

David and Cheryl Strassman claim their right to be informed about governmental business was violated when council members exchanged emails relating to JT Klein Co.’s proposed senior living apartments at 2556 S. Fish Hatchery Road.

The Strassmans own a company on that block, DRS Paving.

JT Klein’s three-story, 73-unit independent and assisted living senior apartment project was originally denied a rezoning request in May. When the company asked for reconsideration, the change was approved in October.

The lawsuit, filed in Dane County Circuit Court, claims council members broke the meetings law when emails relating to how the project could be altered were circulated in June among four members — Alds. Julia Arata-Fratta, Dan Bahr, Tom Clauder and Tony Hartmann — and Mayor Jason Gonzalez, not all of whom responded to the emails.

The lawsuit claims members violated the law again on Oct. 7, when council members discussed bringing the project back before the council. Alds. Arata-Fratta, Bahr, Dan Carpenter and Dorothy Krause and Gonzalez were included in those emails.

The council is made up of eight members, and the mayor casts tie-breaking votes.

The lawsuit asks the court to find the council broke the open meetings law and void the zoning change.

The June emails included a comment from Hartmann on how the developer could reroute traffic to garner a favorable vote.

“Figure out the access off of R. (Research) Park Dr. and I’m all in,” Hartmann wrote on June 21.

Hartmann said he doesn’t believe he broke the law.

“If the Strassmans want to stop this project because I sent an email to four people, then that’s for the court to decide,” Hartmann said.

Krause, who is also a Dane County Board member, recognized the risk the group was taking in an email Oct. 7 in which she responded to a constituent and copied other council members.

“In spite of the possibility of breaking open meetings rules, I have copied all the emails,” she wrote.

City Attorney Valerie Zisman did not return a call seeking comment. Krause could not be reached.

The Strassmans also argue the council provided insufficient notice of the meeting in October when it ultimately approved the zoning change. The reconsideration of the vote was added to the agenda the Friday before the Tuesday meeting, but the lawsuit claims the posting was vague and didn’t specify what, if any, action the council would take.

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Shelley K. Mesch is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She earned a degree in journalism from DePaul University.