A judge said Friday he is likely to make public portions of a redacted government email involving a Spring Green man found dead on property that officials deemed a health hazard.
“Clearly to me, the first line and the last two lines of the redacted information not only are not confidential, but are completely responsive to clearly something the newspaper would be looking for,” Green Lake County Circuit Court Judge Mark Slate said.
Slate traveled to a Baraboo courtroom Friday to hear arguments in the Baraboo News Republic‘s records lawsuit against two Sauk County government offices. The out-of-county judge has been appointed to the case in order to avoid potential conflicts of interest for local court officials.
After questioning attorneys for both sides for more than two hours, Slate said he is likely to rule in the newspaper’s favor in at least one matter; redactions to a Sept. 29, 2016, email from a county legal secretary to then-Sauk County Board Chairman Marty Krueger.
Slate said he may request additional legal briefs from attorneys regarding other record denials the newspaper has contested before he issues a written ruling.
In the email, the secretary appears to be complaining to Krueger about her boss, then-Sauk County Corporation Counsel Todd Liebman.
One section of the email begins, “In regards to the Planning and zoning issue of…” Attorneys for the county blacked out the remaining portion of that section, citing a legal exemption that prevents the disclosure of health treatment records.
Since the lawsuit was filed, the county has provided the judge with a complete copy of the email so that he may decide whether the redaction was lawful. Slate said Friday at least two sentences within the redacted portion were not privileged and would be of interest to the newspaper.
He said that the redacted portion involved the zoning case of Christopher S. Mueller, a 64-year-old Spring Green man who was found dead in his cluttered trailer 27 days after the email was sent.
The newspaper has reported that the county deemed Mueller’s property a danger to public health at least two years prior to his death. A zoning inspector wrote in reports that Mueller didn’t have a working septic system, dumped human waste on the property, and used his land as an illegal junkyard.
In visits the property, the inspector documented Mueller’s poor health conditions, and the county later issued an abatement order demanding that he vacate the property in 30 days. He didn’t leave.
A county ordinance said Liebman, the county attorney, had the “duty of prosecuting” those who violate abatement orders, and was required to take steps to enforce Mueller’s removal.
However, 10 months passed between the time that Liebman was notified that Mueller had not obeyed the abatement order and the day he was found dead. The county attorney never took steps to have him removed from the hazardous property.
Liebman, who is no longer with the county, has characterized his inaction in the case as intentional, and not the result of any negligence. He said a zoning case was not the proper venue to help Mueller, and that the man likely would have died elsewhere if he had been ordered to leave.
Other matters argued Friday included additional emails involving the Mueller case and a separate dispute over the identities of final candidates for the position of Sauk County administrative coordinator. Attorneys also argued whether the newspaper should be entitled to attorney fees in the case.