We're never shy about telling things like they are, nor do we hesitate to admit when we're wrong, and it's the latter we are doing this week.
Much to our surprise, Oneida County district attorney Michael Schiek found the county's LRES (labor relations and employee services) committee guilty of violating the openmeetings law, as we had alleged in a complaint to him; he levied a forfeiture of $25 against committee chairman Ted Cushing and ordered the entire county board to take an open-meetings training session.
In a way, it was a no-brainer because Cushing had already publicly admitted the closed-session discussions shouldn't have happened. Still, the district attorney has managed to look the other way on equally obvious violations - and to fail to exact any consequences even when he found infractions - so the decision here is refreshing.
Sure, $25 and mandatory attendance at a training session aren't the toughest sanctions that could be meted out, but it's a start, and, as we pointed out this week, it serves notice that violations of the law will no longer be tolerated.
Just the certainty of punishment and public embarrassment - not to mention the potential electoral consequences - should be enough to deter future violations.
In the past, the exact opposite situation existed. Supervisors could almost certainly count on no consequences when they were caught violating the law. A new day has dawned.
Some concerns remain.
The complaint by The Times alleged multiple infractions - routine discussion of fiscal and policy that should have been open; a discussion about the newspaper's open records request that should also have been open; and a failure to notice that any discussion about open records requests would be entertained.
Yet neither the settlement agreement nor Schiek's letter to the newspaper give any indication which allegations he found to violate the law. Indeed, the settlement letter indicates that Schiek might not consider all the allegations to be actual infractions.
According to the settlement letter, "the county admits that certain discussions that occurred during the committee's closed session on October 5, 2016, were not in full compliance with the requirements under Wisconsin's open meetings law."
"Certain" discussions? Which discussions? And if they were not in full compliance, were they in half compliance, or one-quarter compliance? Aren't you either in compliance or not?
This kind of vague finding does a disservice to the taxpaying public.
Most important, the settlement does not disclose what the district attorney - and the county - believes is acceptable under the law and what is not.
Were they busted only for discussing non-exempt fiscal and policy matters, or did the district attorney consider those OK? We don't know. Were the open-records discussions out of bounds in Schiek's view, or were they permissible? Again, we don't know.
Without knowing what specific violations the district attorney found, the public cannot be assured the county hasn't been given the green light to discuss some of those same matters again.
That's important because Schiek's judgment about what is legal and what is not deserves to be tested in public.
The vague nature of the settlement allows the district attorney's views on the open-meetings law to elude scrutiny, and leaves the public in the dark about what the county thinks is permissible.
When a public official is implicated in wrongdoing, the public has a right to know what the specific wrongdoing is. Otherwise, true accountability is impossible.
Still, it is a decision that can be given two cheers. Schiek's action should put the county on notice that future violations will be prosecuted - that's a major shift by itself - and he wisely ordered all county supervisors to take the mandatory compliance training.
After all the open-records and open-meetings missteps in Oneida County, including the loss of a $50,000 lawsuit over sheriff's department records, even Schiek can see supervisors are clueless about the law.
So this is a good start, but no one should be lulled into thinking that a $25 forfeiture and one training session will cure all that ails the Oneida County Board of Supervisors.
Posted: Friday, January 6, 2017
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Another op-ed all about Richard Moore and Gregg Walker. Shocker.
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