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The Northwoods River News | Rhinelander, Wisconsin

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home : opinions : opinions
September 17, 2019

9/7/2019 7:30:00 AM
Our View
It's time for Oneida County taxpayers to be very concerned
Gregg Walker and Richard Moore
Publisher and Columnist

This week, as we report in today's edition, The Times has filed an open-meetings complaint against two supervisors, Robb Jensen and Jack Sorensen, for what we believe to be talking out of turn at a recent meeting, in which they took it upon themselves to plug a new $10-million-plus expense for county taxpayers, namely, a new county highway department facility.

The problem is, a new highway facility wasn't on the agenda. Nobody - especially those who oppose the idea and the taxpayers who would pick up the bill - knew it would be discussed. It was an egregious and intolerable display of special-interest advocacy, but the problem is, it's only the latest in a long line of examples.

Supervisors apparently feel they can say anything they want at any time, and so apparently does Oneida County's district attorney, Michael Schiek, who never metes out any consequential punishment for open-government violations.

Now some might say, so what's the big deal? So they sat around yammering for six minutes about how nice a new highway department would be. So what? After all, they didn't make any decisions.

But it is a big deal. No, they didn't make any decisions, but their mission was to lay the groundwork for a decision by supervisors down the road. The idea is to convince their fellow supervisors by sitting around and giving all the reasons they believe a new facility is a good and righteous idea, without having anybody present to knock those arguments down.

To cite just one example, Mr. Sorensen pointed to the law enforcement center as a great example of building a new facility that should be used as a model for a new highway facility. After all, he said, it came in under bid, on time, and paid for itself.

Conveniently, because it wasn't on the agenda, there was no one there to take issue with that argument, but there are plenty of issues that can be raised. Mr. Sorensen didn't observe that the county built a jail way too big for its needs - wasting who knows many tax dollars - and that it paid for itself only because of the happy accident of state inmates.

We don't think that counting on happy accidents is good way to make public policy.

Mr. Sorensen also didn't mention the interest costs that came with that debt, and, most important, he did not mention that, though the jail itself was paid off, county taxpayers are still paying that $1 million of debt service a year because spending-happy supervisors kept it on the tax rolls once the debt was retired.

He also did not mention the myriad infrastructure and building problems the jail has had and how many tax dollars have gone into correcting those issues.

Some model. If anything, the jail is an argument for not building a new highway department.

Of course, no one raised those arguments when Mr. Sorensen gave his viewpoint. Why? Because, oh yeah, the topic wasn't on the agenda. How convenient.

And, if someone had tried to counter Mr. Sorensen, how long do you think it would have been before that person was ruled out of order because it wasn't an agenda item? In a heartbeat.

Such is the way county supervisors bend and manipulate and break the state's open government laws to advance their own special-interest agendas. And, as we have reported countless times, that example is just one in an ocean of examples.

And there are larger issues beyond transparency. For instance, why are most programs and services centered in Rhinelander? Attending meetings in the courthouse, one would think that Rhinelander is the center of the universe and the courthouse a temple to the gods, but let's not forget that Minocqua alone pays 25 percent of the tax freight in this county, and it's even more when you add in Woodruff and Hazelhurst and Lake Tomahawk.

So, if you're going to build a new highway facility - which we think is a bad idea - but if the county is determined to do so, why not put it in the Lakeland area? And what about zoning? Why isn't the zoning department completely relocated to Minocqua?

Right now, the county has its principal zoning office in a city it doesn't even regulate. On the other hand, the Lakeland area contributes mightily to the revenues going into that department, so we think, to use words Mr. Sorensen used when he described a new highway facility, we think a strong argument exists for moving entire county departments to the Lakeland area.

Beyond that issue, there is a culture in Oneida County government that smacks of favoritism and good-old-boy group think. There seems to be a lot of misconduct that results in suspensions and even potential criminal activity.

The problem is, who gets suspended and who doesn't seems to be linked to who you know, and whose side you are on. County forestry director John Bilogan has been suspended for allegations surrounding the alleged use of county property for personal gain but not charged with any crime as of this writing, while zoning assistant director Pete Wegner has been charged with criminal misdemeanors for battery and disorderly conduct but never suspended.

To be fair, a sheriff's department investigation has recommended charges against Mr. Bilogan, but two questions need to be answered: Just what is the culture inside the clubby courthouse that has led to so many suspensions, resignations, and alleged misconduct over the years, and how is it that someone accused of, but not charged with, a white-collar crime is not allowed to work -though still collect a paycheck - while someone officially charged with criminal battery against a member of the public is allowed to work?

Beyond the good-old-boy culture, beyond the Rhinelander-centric orientation of the county, and beyond the ongoing disdain for transparency, there are other issues that should concern Oneida County residents.

Demanding accountability is first and foremost. The transit commission is a joke - and so was the perfunctory audit performed of its books - and serious questions remain about the actual services it provides, as well as the number of people using those services. Yet we hear Oneida County supervisors disclaim that they have any responsibility or control over the transit commission.

Such pronouncements amaze us. They amaze us because Oneida County is a chartering organization for the transit commission, and they can withdraw at any time. That would be the death knell for the commission, and it is the leverage the county has to demand answers to serious questions. But they do not demand those answers.

Neither does the county ever seriously entertain the idea of cutting unnecessary programs. Funding the follies continues unabated.

Contempt for transparency, the bias against the Lakeland area, the lack of accountability, the inbred good-old-boy culture of the county - all these and more are huge problems that should worry every citizen of this county.

But there are solutions, and next week we'll discuss what we think one of them is.

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232 S. Courtney Street, Rhinelander, WI 54501 | Office (715) 365-6397 | Fax (715) 365-6361

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