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Transparency troubled Kewaunee closing city hall on rising COVID cases

Empower Wisconsin | Nov. 11, 2020

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — The city of Kewaunee, which has been criticized for limiting open government, will close city hall in response to rising COVID-19 numbers.

Kewaunee’s Common Council this week voted 5-3 to close the government building to the public, beginning Monday. Citizens will be able to conduct some business at city hall offices by appointment only.

As of Monday, Kewaunee County had recorded a total of 1,352 positive cases and 13 deaths since the outbreak of the pandemic, according to the county health department. There were 114 active cases.

While cases and hospitalizations have swelled statewide, some Kewaunee residents expressed concerns that shutting down city hall will only worsen local government’s transparency troubles.

In a letter obtained by Empower Wisconsin, Kewaunee resident and former mayor John Blaha urged the council to reject the motion.

“While I understand Covid19 is of great concern, so also is the public’s ability and right to have access to elected officials and city hall administration. Voting to close city hall is not in the public’s best interest and limits their access to honest and open government,” Blaha wrote.

As Empower Wisconsin has reported, some Kewaunee residents have been critical of City Administrator Fred Schnook’s and Mayor Jason Jelinek’s handling of the city-owned marina’s boat launch and parking lot, which flooded in 2019 and remains inoperable. More so, they’re concerned about the closed-door way city officials have approached the planned purchase of a private, adjacent marina.

Without the Common Council’s knowledge, the mayor unilaterally signed a purchase agreement, contingent on council approval and the securing of a federal grant.

Alderman Jeff Vollenweider told Empower Wisconsin in September that city officials have kept citizens in the dark.

“I don’t believe leaving the council behind the curtain or out of the conversation is the right thing to do. I don’t believe leaving the pubic out of the conversation is the right thing to do,” he said.

Vollenweider and Alder Janita Zimmerman, two of three council members who voted against closing city hall, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Others have complained city officials have been reluctant to turn over government information to the public. The city has not updated its council meeting minutes, for instance, since late July. Schnook and Jelinek have not returned  Empower Wisconsin’s multiple phone calls seeking comment and information about the city marina and its plan to purchase the private marina.

In his letter to the council members, Blaha said he understands it is the city’s duty to protect its employees from COVID19, but the government must also protect the rights of its citizens. Besides, closing city hall to the public while opening it up to workers, contractors and others may defeat the safety measure, the businessman wrote.

“Therefore I am again, respectfully requesting and urging you not to use Covic19 as a crutch to your decision making,” Blaha wrote. “Simply because other communities may be following this path does not mean we must also. In the battle for keeping honest and open government, we must ask ourselves; Are we leaders or followers?”

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