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home : opinions : opinions
May 19, 2019

5/9/2019 7:30:00 AM
Our view
Open government is no joke, Mr. Teichmiller

It was all just a joke. It was all said in jest.

That's how Erv Teichmiller, the chairman of the Oneida-Vilas Transit Commission, defended himself when interviewed by the Oneida County sheriff's department about the open meetings complaint filed against the commission's executive committee by this newspaper.

The complaint was filed because Mr. Teichmiller and other members of that executive committee decided to discuss asking the publisher of this newspaper, and the newspaper, for a donation of anywhere between $15,000 and $45,000.

Mr. Teichmiller also opined on Gregg Walker's financial ability to make such a donation, and they discussed a trade for advertising on their transit buses.

And, through it all, for those who listen to the recording or read the transcript, there was a lot of laughter. Everyone was having a jolly good time, you know, because it was all a joke.

But the joke may be on the transit commission's executive committee.

For now the public can clearly see how their elected officials - especially Mr. Teichmiller, who is a Vilas County supervisor, and Steve Schreier, an Oneida County supervisor - conduct the public's business.

That is to say, they do so cavalierly and without much seriousness. They are just joking, having a good time with the good old boys, and collecting their per diems.

Their constituents and other citizens also get to see just how they view the people who elect them to office - with disdain. They are the good-old-boy royalty, and we are lower beings, subject to mockery and ridicule.

People or privacy don't matter very much to them. So they can take to their public stage and publicly challenge a private citizen, who had no forewarning, to make sizable contributions to their pet projects. They can openly discuss the personal finances of these private citizens.

In his interview with law enforcement about the off-agenda discussion of donations, which took place under a vague and generic agenda item called "Open Records Request," Mr. Teichmiller said he meant to have that discussion under the next agenda item, "Letters and Communications," because the request for a donation was tied to the need for local matching funds for a grant for buses, which was part of a communication the transit manager had with the state Department of Transportation.

But, as Oneida County detective sergeant Brian Barbour pointed out in his report, that "letters and communications" agenda item was just as vague and generic as the one before it, to wit, there was no way anyone would know that the communication with the DOT about local matching funds would be discussed or mentioned, much less donations.

When the talk veered into donations, no matter where it took place, the discussion should have been halted because it was not on the agenda.

The thing is, Mr. Teichmiller knows better. Indeed, at that very same meeting, he did halt another discussion because it was not on the agenda. So Mr. Teichmiller knows what's allowed and what isn't.

The difference is, in the discussion about donations, he wanted to target a private citizen, so it didn't matter whether it was a proper discussion or not. And that makes all private citizens potential targets if they dare to question the transit commission.

To be sure, those who represent and write for this newspaper can stand up for ourselves. But that's not true of average citizens, most of whom lack the platform and the resources to fight back when bullied by the government.

And rest assured, if Mr. Teichmiller and Mr. Schreier are arrogant enough to target the newspaper, they must surely feel even more empowered to take on and ridicule and push others around.

It's true, this newspaper, with its platform, can and does take on and question public officials and even private citizens. The difference is we do so only when public policy and the public interest is at stake.

We don't publicly challenge Mr. Teichmiller to donate thousands of dollars to our favorite causes. We don't ponder in our pages his net worth or his financial ability to make donations, like Mr. Teichmiller does on his public stage.

We don't do so because it's not funny. We don't do so because we take the challenges of public policy seriously. And we don't do what Mr. Teichmiller does because it's not a responsible use of a public platform.

Of course, the least funny thing of all about this episode is the lack of transparency it exposes within the transit commission.

It's been obvious for a while, this lack of transparency. They don't want to have county board approval of their budget; they don't want to have to submit to an annual audit; they don't think they have to notify someone or make the public aware when they are going to publicly ask for a donation from that person and discuss his personal finances; and they don't think they have to release the draft minutes of meetings, even to law enforcement.

It's hard to imagine a less transparent agency. The transit commission simply does not want to be held accountable by anyone or anything - not by the counties that fund them, not by independent auditors, not by the people, and not by the public records law.

Interestingly enough, the iron curtain they are trying to draw around themselves comes at a time when more and more questions are swirling around the commission and its operations. The curtain needs to be pulled back so those questions can be answered.

More specifically, Oneida and Vilas counties both need to put their feet down and demand that transparency now. And they need to take a very close look to make sure that the transit commission is spending its money efficiently and that the people whom the transit commission is supposed to serve are actually being served.

That population - and the taxpayers - deserve no less.

In the meantime, this newspaper will continue its own investigation of that agency. We won't be digging into Mr. Teichmiller's personal life to see if "he's got it" to make donations, but we sure will be digging into the inner workings of the transit commission.

That's a promise, and it's no joke.

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