MADISON — The transparency troubled Kewaunee City government is bristling at filling open records requests about its controversial harbor plans.
In his recent report to the city council obtained by Wisconsin Spotlight, Kewaunee City Administrator Fred Schnook complained that he has spent an “inordinate amount of time” responding to information requests from our sister news organization Empower Wisconsin.
In November, Empower Wisconsin sought city documents through Wisconsin’s open records laws. 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 grant and loss of the city marina grant.”
As Empower Wisconsin reported in December, 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 records request also sought reports on the city marina grant and Salmon Harbor purchase.
To Schnook, the request was “expansive” and lacked specifics, despite the fact that it included key search terms. It 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.
The city asked Empower Wisconsin to clarify the request, which Empower Wisconsin subsequently did. City officials also informed Empower Wisconsin the city staff member who serves as records custodian wouldn’t be available to address the request for more than a month.
Schnook informed his bosses on the city council that he didn’t think much of Empower Wisconsin’s updated open records request.
“We then received a response containing the exact same language as their initial information request letter but inserting the statement “we are clarifying that point with this more recent letter per your request.” It was not the same request.
Schnook said he believes Empower Wisconsin “is hoping to evade our questions in order to provide themselves an opportunity to trash our fair city, yet again, in Empower Wisconsin by claiming we have denied their public information request.”
Mr. Schnook is free to offer his opinions. What Empower Wisconsin and Wisconsin Spotlight seek from the city of Kewaunee is public records. Many residents in the small Lake Michigan city are concerned about the city’s handling of the publicly owned marina, its failure to repair it and questionable moves to purchase a nearby private harbor.
We think internal communications and development records would shine some important light on decision-making by public officials charged with overseeing taxpayer money. We also believe internal city communications could provide context to conversations regarding council members who have opposed the mayor’s and council’s majority decision.
We intend to make sure the city of Kewaunee follows Wisconsin’s open record laws, just as we expect any other local or state government to comply.
City officials have informed us they intend to send us another letter soon on our updated records request. They have been reluctant to send us information via electronic mail, as is required by law.
We await their response.