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June 16, 2019

5/16/2019 7:30:00 AM
Our view
Teichmiller should step aside, or be suspended

Oneida County's demand for an independent transit commission audit is welcome news, assuming the transit commission complies, or doesn't try to be sneaky and play games with such an audit.

That's far from assured, unfortunately. So Oneida County leaders must be vigilant about who the commission selects to perform the audit; they must make sure the audit itself is performed by a truly independent and reputable firm committed to transparency.

Right now, we have no confidence that that will be the case, given the transit commission's resistance to an audit and its ongoing efforts to thwart transparency in its operations. As Oneida County chairman Dave Hintz said this week when he announced the county's demand for an audit, both the commission and the transit manager were uncooperative with law enforcement in the sheriff's department's very recent open-meetings investigation.

That's unsettling. It tells us attitudes haven't changed there, and it tells us that the commission chairman, Erv Teichmiller, should temporarily step aside until a truly comprehensive audit is completed and its findings released.

If he doesn't, he should be suspended.

Indeed, if Mr. Teichmiller won't step aside temporarily on his own, that will tell us a great deal, for he is at the center of at least part of the controversies. To wit, the scope of the audit will include a review of potential conflicts of interest, and those potential conflicts of interest, as Mr. Hintz outlined on Tuesday, revolve at least in part around Mr. Teichmiller.

As such, he should not be involved in selecting the auditing firm, and he should not be involved in transit commission operations until all the matters at hand are resolved.

In his presentation Tuesday, Mr. Hintz talked about how top leadership sets the tone at the top, and that the tone at the top of the transit commission is not a good one.

"I feel that the tone at the top of the transit commission is kind of setting the pace and that has got to change," Mr. Hintz said.

We agree, and that's why it is so important for Mr. Teichmiller to step aside immediately. Otherwise, it sets the stage for the credibility of the audit itself to be called into question.

We need also to object to some things that were raised Tuesday in various defenses of the transit commission. For one thing, Mr. Mott said he believes "100 percent" that if Mr. Hintz was not a professional certified public accountant, the audit issue would never have been so important.

We disagree. This newspaper has received complaints about various aspects of the transit commission's operation for a while now, prompting our own ongoing investigation long before we ever knew Mr. Hintz's feelings on the issue.

The point is, simultaneous complaints were beginning to arise from many quarters, and the idea that Mr. Hintz trumped it all up is an attempt to distract from the very serious concerns at hand. Mixing accounting methods, paying bills late, ignoring charter requirements, mocking private citizens in public, ignoring conflict of interest rumors - all these and more were bound to focus public scrutiny on the commission sooner or later.

Given all that, who wouldn't insist on an audit? Mr. Mott's viewpoint is blinkered at best, and dishonest at worst.

Indeed, Mr. Mott, in his role as an Oneida County supervisor serving the county's interest on the transit commission, should have been shouting for an audit from the rafters. He was not. He was going along.

And, we should point out, when it comes to being personally transparent, which Mr. Mott says he is committed to, this is the same Bob Mott that several years ago publicly complained about having to go to the trouble of following the open meetings law, questioned whether citizens care about what's on agendas, opined that agency secretaries shouldn't spend too much time making sure that agendas are correct, and suggested that committee chairmen shouldn't be expected to know the open records and open meetings laws.

If there was an open-records and open-meetings prison, Mr. Mott would surely have earned a life sentence by now. Instead, he was sentenced to the transit commission, where he fits right in.

On Tuesday, Mr. Mott also trotted out a portion of a letter from a state Department of Transportation bureaucrat who took it upon himself to clear the transit commission of any wrongdoing. The bureaucrat attributed the commission's financial issues to federal delays and "overexuberance," not to any "fraudulent behavior or lack of interest" in paying bills.

But this bureaucrat was not in any position to make such a pronouncement. In that same letter, and in his conversation with Mr. Hintz, the bureaucrat - one Chad Reuter, a DOT transit section lead worker - informed Mr. Hintz that DOT audits do not include reviews of conflict-of-interest issues.

In other words, its audits are limited and far less likely to uncover any fraudulent activity, if any exists.

What's more, the DOT hasn't even conducted its limited audits of the transit commission. Put bluntly, Mr. Reuter and the DOT know absolutely nothing beyond what limited information they have received from afar, most of that coming from the transit commission itself.

As usual, one government agency was circling the wagons for the other. The bureaucrat reached a conclusion he said he could not reach, and then passed off his fakery as fact, hoping no one would notice.

Well, we did.

To be sure, none of this is to say there has been any wrongdoing, conflicts of interest, or legal or ethical breaches. We hope there haven't been, but there's more than enough questions to warrant the action Oneida County is taking.

We should all remember, too, that there are other issues beyond potential wrongdoing and financial mismanagement, questions an audit might not answer, questions about what public transportation our counties really need and whether the transit commission is filling those needs, or is off base.

We agree with Mr. Mott that there is a need for transportation in the Northwoods - there is a vulnerable population - but it is far from settled whether the transit commission is providing it or squandering valuable resources.

Mr. Hintz alluded to those issues when he mentioned buses going off-route and the seemingly large number of transit buses riding around empty, or with few passengers.

So the numbers need to be seriously scrutinized. Are there really 4,000 one-way trips per month? What is the size of the population being served - in other words how many people take those total number of trips? Is the commission, for all that money, serving more than a few hundred people?

And are those the right people? Is the vulnerable population getting the attention it needs? Does the commission need inter-city routes or should it focus on serving needs within individual communities?

Are the rates sustainable? Does the commission's rates form unfair competition to the private sector? Is the commission working cooperatively with those private entities?

The questions go on and on. Surely the community needs to be involved in answering them, and hopefully this newspaper will help shed some more light on the commission's operations.

But first things first. An untainted and truly independent audit needs to be performed, and action needs to be taken to begin to restore credibility and trust.

That means Mr. Teichmiller should recuse himself from the audit selection process, and temporarily step aside as transit commission chairman.

If he doesn't, he should be suspended.

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