MADISON — The city of Kewaunee’s government battles have escalated, with the mayor going after the personal emails of a new city council member.
In a blog post last month, Alderwoman Wendy Shelton reported that Mayor Jason Jelinek filed an open records request with the city clerk seeking “all personal emails” of the council member.
Shelton, an outspoken critic of the mayor and City Administrator Fred Schnook, wrote that she received the request by certified mail.
She thought the request odd, particularly because she’s been highly critical of city administration’s trouble with transparency.
“The newest alderperson, who has been in office just over 60 days and ran on a transparency platform, is getting a demand for emails?,” Shelton wrote. “I write everything, and freely send it to anyone who fills out my website form. And many people stop me and ask to be added to my email list. The circulation of this blog has tripled since my election. How much more open could I be?”
According to the blog, Jelinek’s request states:
“I am officially requesting all personal emails of councilperson Wendy Shelton. Recently in a publication she shared with her district, it stated an email address that is not the official city address given for city business and asked that recipients respond to that address. I would like all personal emails from April 5th to present date.”
Shelton wrote that she finds Jelinek’s request “weird and a little creepy.” The council member asserts that she’s not that interesting. She noted a sample of her emails — a pedicure appointment, a message regarding an upcoming cardiogram, her wine order, and a report from her daughter about the “B” she got in her Linear Calculus class.
“But then I thought about it a little bit more, If the mayor is allowed to demand personal emails, who is going to run for office anymore?” Shelton said. “It seems that the mayor is trying to send a message—if you run for office and disagree with him, this is what can happen to you.”
“Councilperson Shelton has shown multiple times that her quest for transparency is a farce,” Jelinek said in an email response to Empower. He cites an “example where she was willingly breaking the law which she took an oath to hold up.”
It appears Shelton’s husband has “backyard chickens,” in defiance of Kewaunee’s anti-chicken ordinance.
The mayor pointed to a blog in which Shelton confesses.
“It’s funny—chickens have become all the rage in big cities and suburbs. Many have recently changed their laws and ordinances to allow chickens, albeit with restrictions,” the council member wrote, adding that her husband, the gardener in the family, got the chickens after a battle with ticks and Lyme disease. The chickens, Shelton claims, have thinned out the tick numbers in the backyard.
Shelton declined to comment further pointing Empower Wisconsin to her website, wendykewaunee.com, “which has several blog entries explaining my experiences with the city.”
Indeed. It raises a lot of questions about local government in the small Lake Michigan city of about 3,000 residents — including posts titled “Quest for Transparency.”
“I have been your District 2 Council person now for 68 days. My first order of business has been to make the mayor understand that the council is endowed by the state of Wisconsin to govern the city. The COUNCIL oversees the city, as it is expressly written in Wisconsin State statute 62.11(5)…” Shelton wrote in the June 27 post.
She’s not alone in her concerns about city government and what some residents have described as the heavy-handed leadership of the mayor and the city administrator. Those concerns, sources say, led to significant turnover on the council in April when Shelton and two other challengers defeated incumbents and a fourth candidate ran unopposed after another incumbent bowed out.
While Jelinek goes after a city council member’s email, the city is loathe to turn over documents sought by Empower Wisconsin through an open records request. Earlier this year, Kewaunee city government officials sent Empower Wisconsin a bill for more than $10,000 — the amount it would charge to turn over public documents.
The insanely high cost estimate (and illegal, according to an open records law expert) was in response to Empower Wisconsin’s request for records under Wisconsin’s open records law. The request asked for all communications “between Kewaunee City Administrator Fred Schnook and Mayor Jason Jelinek and the members of the common council regarding the city marina and loss of the city marina grant.”
Kewaunee’s bid for a $3 million U.S. Economic Development Administration grant fell through. The mayor’s big plan for the city to purchase the privately-owned Salmon Harbor for $1.8 million was contingent on the $3 million EDA grant, according to a purchase agreement Jelinek signed without the knowledge of the Kewaunee Common Council. The mayor’s behind-the-scenes dealings raised some serious questions.
The records request also sought information city officials may find embarrassing, including communications between Schnook, Jelinek and common council members regarding comments Alders Jeff Vollenweider and Janita Zimmerman made to Empower Wisconsin or other media outlets. City sources have told Empower Wisconsin city officials gave Vollenweider and Zimmerman a dressing down for speaking with Empower Wisconsin about the city’s harbor issues, even threatening legal action.
Perhaps that’s why Shelton is reluctant to talk.
But there’s a disconnect here. The mayor demands a city council member’s personal email, while he city refuses to turn over official city records to a news outlet unless it forks over $10,000-plus.
Jelinek probably won’t be getting copies of Shelton’s pedicure appointment emails anytime soon. Tom Kamenick, President and founder of the Wisconsin Transparency Project, specializing in the state’s open records law, says a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling from more than a decade ago prevents the release of a government official’s personal emails unless those emails relate to government business.
There’s a bigger problem here, Shelton insists in her blog.
“This bullying of citizen alderpersons when they critique city officials cannot be allowed to stand. Otherwise good people will shy away from government service. And these days we need all the good people in government that we can get,” she wrote.