Ken Charneski is suing Kronenwetter - does the case have merit?
A look through the allegations in the lawsuit
It’s worth noting first in reviewing Village Board Member Ken Charneski’s lawsuit against former Kronenwetter Interim Administrator Kim Manley, Village Attorney Lee Turonie and current Village Clerk Bobbi Birk-LaBarge is that the suit itself is very long and repetitive. For a writ of mandamus — which is essentially a petition to the court to order a governing body or some other entity to perform an action — 46 pages is probably one of the longest I’ve seen.
Charneski wrote it himself, and notes that it was prepared without the help of an attorney. It makes many arguments that ordinarily would probably be fleshed out in court. My sense from reading many of these is that, generally, the idea is to make the case that the court should move the case forward in order to more deeply look at it. I don’t think it’s called probable cause in civil cases but it would generally be the same idea.
But that’s separate from the facts of the case. I spent a lot of time taking notes on the mandamus, while also interviewing two of the three candidates for mayor last week. My goal was to dig into the essence of what is being alleged.
Here is the main gist of the allegations:
That former interim Administrator Kim Manley withheld invoices sent by then-newly appointed village attorney Lee Turonie, and that those invoices increased the village’s attorney fees dramatically (roughly $10,000 in one month, for instance).
That is partially due to a policy Charneski alleges Manley implemented that open records needed to be submitted via an official form, despite the state’s laws and attorney general’s compliance guide insisting that there are no “magic words” or forms that need to be filled out for a request to be considered a legitimate records request. (This is an area of the law I know well and he is right about this.) He alleges Birk-LaBarge upheld this policy, even on simple requests.
That included current board members, which Charneski is not happy about. Charneski also alleges that Manley prevented an agenda item from being brought before the board that would have addressed this question.
And, he alleges that Manley was in essence acting as if she personally was the client, not the village. He alleges that Turonie advised Manley not to provide the invoices because they were protected under attorney-client privilege. Charneski says that doesn’t make sense because the village, which should include the board, is the client.
For context, it appears increasing legal costs to the village is at the center of this. According to Charneski’s suit, the Village of Kronenwetter had a modest legal budget until The Wausonian (yep, that’s us) submitted a rather large open records request. The village had to increase its legal budget to cover the request after The Wausonian successfully argued that, according to state law, requesting entities can not be charged for redactions. (Though frankly, a large part of the cost was because of how poorly they were prepared - if the preparer had not included numerous repetitions it would have been less than a fourth of the size if not smaller, which would have saved me a ton of time, and saved the village a ton in redaction fees.)
But even with that increase, Charneski alleges that the board had to approve $22,000 more for the legal budget thanks to the legal bills that piled up.
For some context, I asked another municipal attorney whether invoices were protected under attorney-client privilege. That attorney told me they would simply redact any information that was protected under that privilege, but otherwise would provide them. And that was just for anyone requesting them - presumably council members would be considered representatives of the municipality and thus would be the client in attorney-client privilege.
As of the weekend, no one has filed a response in the case. The Wausonian will keep an eye out for that response and report on it.
Charneski, of course, has already been in the news lately as The Wausonian obtained a copy of an email sent to all village board members by Birk-LaBarge complaining about his behavior:
What the suit is asking
Charneski asks for a number of things in his suit. I’ve summarized them here:
That the court find the village officials in question violated state statutes around open records eight times
That all attorney invoices be turned over immediately and that they be turned over in the future
An order declaring that those invoices are public record, and that they can’t be withheld
Order Turonie to comply with all village requests and questioning of invoices
Birk-LaBarge to post a notice at the village hall, and to remove the information request form from the website
Costs and damages of $100 per count, apportioned between respondents, as well as punitive damages and any other costs the court sees fit to impose
What will happen?
I’ve seen people filing lawsuits on their own, without the aid of an attorney, all but laughed out of court before. In Stevens Point a resident opposed to the redevelopment of the city’s shopping mall filed a writ to have the project stopped, and it was thrown out within five minutes. It was quite a shellacking, and by a judge not terribly prone to such things.
But Charneski does raise serious concerns about open records access. It seems odd to keep village invoices from a public official requesting them. From what I’ve seen, there is enough that a judge would certainly want to take a look at it.
It is also important to point out that we only have Charneski’s side of the story so far, since a response has not yet been filed.
So it’s anyone’s guess how this will play out. The Wausonian will keep an eye on this case.
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