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Dilemma after Racine mayor’s confidential settlement

RACINE, Wis. (AP) – Racine Mayor John Dickert is facing a quandary after he reached a confidential settlement in a slander case brought against him by a former employee.

The terms of the settlement haven’t been released, and a confidentiality clause prevents either side from revealing the terms without the other’s permission. However, because taxpayers may have been liable for the settlement, The Journal Times of Racine is arguing that Dickert’s office has to release the terms under the state’s Public Records Law.

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.

“We don’t know what we’re supposed to do,” Lettney said. “Therefore we’re asking the court … to examine the situation and tell everyone what we’re supposed to do. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”

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.

Bielefeldt and Dickert reached a settlement in late April, days before a jury trial was set to start. The Journal Times filed separate records requests with the mayor and the city on May 24, saying the settlement is presumed public and should be disclosed because it “obviously involved the expenditure of public money – either directly or indirectly (via insurance coverage).”

The terms of the confidentiality clause prohibit either party from releasing the agreement or disclosing its terms unless both parties agree or by an order of a court.

“It would be so much easier if Mr. Bielefeldt consented, but he fairly has a right not to,” Lettney said.

Messages left Monday with Bielefeldt and his attorney were not immediately returned.

Michael Cohen, the attorney representing the mayor specifically in the slander suit, said confidentiality agreements aren’t uncommon in matters like these. He declined to say how the settlement of a taxpayer-funded lawsuit could be kept private, and he also declined to say what the penalty for breaking the clause would be.

Also uncertain is the matter of who would be liable if Dickert were penalized for releasing the settlement. The city picked up his legal costs in the slander suit but wasn’t party to the settlement, so it’s not clear whether the city or Dickert would have to pay.

The city and mayor filed a lawsuit last week asking a judge to resolve the issue.

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?”

Information from: The Journal Times, http://www.journaltimes.com

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