Four complaints have been filed with the Waupaca County district attorney against Dayton Town Chairman Chris Klein.
The complaints, filed by Dayton residents in late October, allege Klein had a conflict of interest when he established the Little Hope Lake District.
Meanwhile, Jeff Siewert, Waupaca County’s corporation counsel, plans to seek a judge’s ruling on whether the lake district is legal.
“I believe it may be invalid,” Siewert said, regarding the lake district.
Siewert met with the county’s Finance Committee Wednesday, Nov. 6 to obtain outside counsel. Siewert said the counsel would assist in filing a declaratory judgment action requesting a judge review the formation of the Little Hope Lake District.
“There’s a question on whether a town can create a lake district and then have decision-making authority as part of it. We’re asking a judge to give an interpretation of the statute,” Siewert said. “Was the lake district created properly?”
Siewert said outside counsel would also help bring an objective perspective to the issue.
The county owns property in the lake district. In the spring of 2014, the county’s Park and Recreation Department plans to remove the dam that once formed the Little Hope Mill Pond.
Alleged conflict of interest
The complaints against Klein were filed by Don and Linda Holtebeck, Jim and Cathy Miller, Gary and Maggie Elmer and Tom Miller.
“Chris Klein acted officially in a matter which the official is privately interested,” Cathy Miller wrote in her complaint filed with District Attorney John Snider. “Mr. Klein formed a lake district to protect and support his personal property on Circle Drive while appointing himself as chair of the lake district, without any public input or petition.”
Cathy Miller and her husband own riparian property on what had been the Little Hope Mill Pond until the DNR ordered a drawdown due to safety concerns about the dam. They have tried unsuccessfully to be removed from the Little Hope Lake District.
“He’s done this without any public input or a petition from us,” Cathy Miller said, noting that she and her husband have petitioned twice to be removed from the lake district. “It’s like it has not even been considered.”
She is also Klein’s neighbor.
“The meetings are starting to get hostile,” Miller said. “I feel this is a more appropriate way to voice our concerns at this point.”
Miller said she does not want the dam replaced and spoke against it at the county’s public hearing prior to the dam’s removal.
“Personally, I prefer the river to be natural. Having the dam there creates an unnatural body of water,” Miller said. “We are interested in working with the county and the DNR to enhance the river. We’d like to see a habitat for trout.”
The complaints allege Klein has a conflict of interest because he owns property which will benefit from the formation of the lake district.
In an Oct. 24, 2012 email to Tom Miller, one of the complainants, Klein indicated he owned five parcels within the newly formed lake district. All but one of those parcels have since been removed from the lake district because they are non-riparian.
For nearly a year, Miller, who lives on the Crystal River in Parfreyville, tried unsuccessfully to be removed from the lake district. His parcel was removed at the last lake district board meeting.
In his complaint, Tom Miller argues the lake district was illegally formed, the lake district board has failed to comply with Wisconsin’s open meetings and open records laws, and Klein has a conflict of interest.
Under state law, there is a conflict of interest when officials “use his or her office or position in a way that produces or assists in the production of a substantial benefit, direct or indirect, for the official, one or more of the officials’ immediate family either separately or together, or an organization which the official is associated.”
When asked about a possible conflict of interest, Klein points to a guide for local public officials produced by the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (GAB).
The GAB recognizes mitigating circumstances to possible conflict of interest if an official is part of a larger group of people who share the same interests.
“In this case, the larger class is all of the property owners with riparian property rights in the Little Hope Lake District,” Klein said.
It is also not a conflict of interest if the official’s interests are not significantly greater than that of other members of the affected group, according to the GAB.
“The majority of property owners within the district are the ones that have the greatest interest replacing the dam at Little Hope and improving the water body and water quality of the millpond,” Klein said. “I am only trying to give the majority of property owners the opportunity to voice their opinions and to work towards a solution with the county and the DNR.”
While Klein said he has not read the complaints against him, he said he was aware they alleged a conflict of interest.
He described the complaints as “unsubstantiated allegations” and “false and baseless accusations.”
“The actions that the town board took and that I have taken all conform with state law,” Klein said. “There’s a small group of individuals that are trying to block the majority of property owners that live around the mill pond from working with Waupaca County and the DNR to improve the situation out there.”
District Attorney John Snider declined to comment on the complaints.
If Snider decides to take no action on the complaints within 20 days after they were filed, the Dayton property owners can then forward their complaints to the state attorney general’s office for review.