Following an investigation, the Oneida County sheriff's department has concluded that the Oneida-Vilas Transit Commission's executive committee clearly discussed a topic not on its agenda in March when its members engaged in a conversation about asking Lakeland Times and River News publisher Gregg Walker and/or The Lakeland Times/River News for a substantial donation.
No such topic - either about donations in general or asking for one from Walker specifically - appeared on the executive committee's agenda for the meeting in question, held in Rhinelander on March 29. The discussion was initiated and led primarily by transit commission chairman Erv Teichmiller.
The sheriff's department has forwarded the results of its investigation to the Oneida County district attorney.
"Based upon review of the investigative information, review of the 2018 Wisconsin Open Meetings Law Compliance Guide, it is clear that conversation outside of the scope of listed agenda items occurred during the Oneida-Vilas Transit Commission executive committee meeting on March 29, 2019," wrote the investigating officer, detective sergeant Brian Barbour of the Oneida County Sheriff's Office, in an April 10 report. "This report will be forwarded to the Oneida County district attorney for further review of open meetings violations located in Wisconsin Statutes-Chapter 19."
The sheriff's department began its investigation after Walker filed a complaint with the district attorney's office on April 4.
"Specifically, the commission openly discussed an item that did not appear anywhere on the meeting agenda," Walker wrote to district attorney Michael Schiek. "During the meeting, as the committee wrapped up its discussion of agenda item 5 concerning an open records request by this newspaper, commission chairman Erv Teichmiller launched into a substantive discussion about who he might ask for a $15,000 contribution for transit buses. I was the only person he mentioned. He then informed the committee that he was thinking that the Lakeland Times/River News should donate $15,000."
The executive committee then engaged in a discussion of this proposed donation, Walker continued.
"Mr. Teichmiller proceeded to tell our reporter in the room not to relay to me his upcoming request for a $15,000 donation so that Mr. Teichmiller could surprise me," he wrote.
They then discussed his personal finances, Walker stated.
What's more, Walker wrote, Teichmiller and other committee members discussed putting advertising for Walker and the newspapers on the sides of buses in exchange for a donation, and Teichmiller went on to say that, for $45,000, such advertisements could be placed on every bus.
"This is clearly an open meetings violation," Walker wrote in his complaint. "For one thing, none of this has any relevance to the open requests request that was on the agenda. None whatsoever. And, as the above details show, I was never informed that Mr. Teichmiller was planning on asking me publicly for a donation. In addition, Mr. Teichmiller engages in a discussion of my personal finances - which he knows nothing about - in an open meeting, and, again, does so without my knowledge."
In his investigation, which included interviews with Teichmiller and Walker, and a review of the audio tape of the meeting, as well as investigative work by detective sergeant Kelly Moermond, Barbour agreed with Walker's assessment.
"Upon review of the audio files and the Notice of Executive Committee Meeting Agenda Items #5 and #6, there is no mention that discussion would take place regarding donations or contributions for local matching funds," Barbour wrote.
But that's not all Barbour found that didn't seem to be precise enough.
Prior to the meeting, transit manager Roger Youngren and the state Department of Transportation had discussed a DOT grant for the purchase of buses, provided the transit commission secured matching local funds. At the March 29 meeting, the executive committee discussed Youngren's and the DOT's communication under agenda item #6, "letters and communications," but Barbour found that agenda item vague.
"Furthermore, specifically under Agenda Item #6, there is no mention specifically of what letters and communications would be discussed during that agenda item," Barbour wrote. "Furthermore, the discussion during Agenda Item #6 does not elaborate as to the actual communication in regards to the 'grant' other than the communication was between Youngren and the Department of Transportation."
The case details
In his investigation, Barbour said he identified a period of about 15 minutes and 12 seconds during the meeting when The Times's open records request was discussed under agenda item #5.
"Before ending the open records agenda item discussion at approximately 22 minutes, 28 seconds, transit commission chairperson Teichmiller began talking about requesting a donation and/or contribution from Gregg Donald Walker, and/or The Lakeland Times in the amount of $15,000 and/or up to $45,000," Barbour wrote in an April 10 supplemental report. "Further discussion by Teichmiller and other committee members added opinion regarding Walker's financial ability to make a contribution as well as potential advertising opportunities on future buses operated by the transit commission."
At 24 minutes and one second, Barbour continued, Teichmiller moved on to agenda item #6, "letters and communications."
"A conversation with a person identified as Roger believed to be Roger Youngren, the transit manager, begins," Barbour wrote. "Teichmiller and Youngren speak about correspondence from the 'DOT' believed to be the Wisconsin Department of Transportation regarding an approved grant."
Teichmiller asked Youngren for a copy of the communication between Youngren and the DOT, Barbour stated.
"Youngren identified that the communication was in fact by telephone," he wrote. "Teichmiller requested Youngren to obtain written documentation of the grant approval."
That was the extent of the discussion of the grant- no specific mention was made about the need for local matching funds - but in his interview with Barbour, Teichmiller, aware that such local matching funds were needed, said that his comments about donations from Walker were in reference to the need for the local match and they were intended to take place under agenda item #6.
Not only that, Teichmiller said he was only joking.
"Teichmiller identified that the Northwoods Transit Commission had received a grant for the purchase of four new buses," Barbour wrote about the April 9 interview with Teichmiller. "Teichmiller informed detective sergeant Barbour that in order to utilize the grant that the Northwoods Transit Commission would have to provide a local match of $15,000 per bus. Teichmiller conceded that in jest Teichmiller made a suggestion to approach 'Mr. Walker' (Gregg Walker) to request Walker potentially contribute $15,000 for a local match on one of the Northwoods Transit buses."
Teichmiller informed Barbour that the grant total was $192,000 for the purchase of the buses, and the commission had two years to spend the money.
At that point, Teichmiller told Barbour that he jumped ahead of himself at the meeting, specifically, before he ended the discussion about open records under agenda item #5, the newspaper's open records request, and before he started the discussion of the DOT grant under item 6, "letters and communications," he began the discussion of donations.
"Teichmiller indicated in reference to Agenda Item #5-Open Records Request and Agenda Item #6-Letters and Communications, Teichmiller referenced a letter confirming the receipt of the grant with the identification of a local match necessary," Barbour wrote. "Teichmiller said that it would 'appear' that Teichmiller's comments regarding donations were under Open Records. However they were intended to be under Letters and Communications."
The discussion of donations would have been relevant there, Teichmiller suggested, because they were related to the DOT communication about the need for local matching funds.
"Teichmiller affirmed the comments regarding donations were in reference to the local match money required to receive grant money which was tied to discussion in Letters and Communications," Barbour wrote in his report.
The phantom bus
In the meeting, during the discussion of the newspaper's open records request, the conversation veered into the open-records grades that committee members had received in The Lakeland Times-River News annual open-government ratings, when Teichmiller suddenly said he had been contemplating asking Walker for a donation.
"By the way, ... yesterday I ha- was just kinda daydreaming about theses buses and who I'd be asking for a $15,000 contribution to help us purchase the buses," Teichmiller said. "And somehow, inspiration came to me, the name Gregg Walker. And I was thinking, I gotta get a contribution from The Lakeland Times, uhm, River News, ... $15,000 to help us pay for the buses. I would think that that would be something he'd consider."
Teichmiller went on to tell a Times reporter not to say anything to Walker so Teichmiller could surprise him. He then addressed Walker's financial status.
"And he's got it, I mean the guy's got it, there's no question about that, so ...," Teichmiller said.
The committee's attention turned then to putting advertisements for Walker and the newspapers on the sides of transit buses in exchange for a contribution.
"In fact, if he wanted to contribute $45,000, we'll slap him on every bus that we have," Teichmiller asserted.
Oneida County supervisor and transit commission member Steve Schreier chimed in, too.
"People would see it because we hear all the time, 'I saw that bus going round with nobody on it,'" Schreier said to laughter. "This time they can say, 'and it had, ya know, the River News or The Lakeland Times plastered on it.'"
"That's the phantom bus, phantom bus," Oneida County supervisor and transit commission member Bob Mott added.
Teichmiller finally brought the conversation to a close, clearly verifying that the conversation took place under agenda item #5, "open records," and that he was turning to agenda item #6, "letters and communications."
"Anything else on open records?" Teichmiller asked. "Letters and communications, uhm, Roger if you have a copy of that uhm, communication from DOT on the, uh, on the grant available?"
Withholding draft minutes
During the investigation, the transit commission also refused to turn over the draft meeting minutes of the March 29 meeting to the sheriff's department.
On April 17, detective sergeant Kelly Moermond called the transit commission office to request a copy of the March 29 minutes and spoke with the office manager, Barb Newman.
"Newman stated she had not finished typing the minutes, but would have them done later in the day," Moermond wrote in her April 18 supplemental report. "I advised Newman that I would be willing to take a draft copy of the minutes, but Newman stated she was not sure if she could release those to me and would need to contact her supervisor."
A while later, Moermond continued, Youngren called back and, on a voice mail, wanted to know why Moermond wanted the minutes.
"I returned Youngren's telephone call and advised him that I worked for the Oneida County Sheriff's Office and was investigating an open meetings complaint," she wrote.
Not a problem, Youngren essentially told Moermond about obtaining the March 29 meeting minutes.
"Youngren said he was fine with me obtaining a copy of the minutes, I just needed to contact Newman at the office and advise her that Youngren stated it was okay," Moermond wrote.
Moermond wrote that she did just that and gave Newman her fax number. But, according to Moermond, she waited between one-and-a-half hours and two hours but received no fax.
Then Youngren called again.
"Youngren explained to me that he could not release the minutes from the meeting because they had not been approved at the meeting," Moermond wrote. "Youngren stated the meeting held on March 29, 2019, was an executive committee meeting, not a transit committee meeting, and minutes were not approved to be released."
Youngren did provide Moermond with a list of people who attended the March 29 meeting.
In the complaint that prompted the sheriff's department's investigation of the transit commission, Walker contended that Teichmiller and the commission had violated a clear standard for determining if an open meetings violation happened, as laid out in the attorney general's 2018 open meetings compliance guide.
"In order to draft a meeting notice that complies with the reasonableness standard, a good rule of thumb will be to ask whether a person interested in a specific subject would be aware, upon reading the notice, that the subject might be discussed," the compliance guide states.
The committee's discussion of soliciting Walker simply wasn't reasonable, based on that standard, Walker wrote.
"Certainly, I would be interested in a discussion of my possible donation of thousands of dollars, and certainly I would be interested in a discussion of the newspapers' potentially advertising on the side of transit buses, not to mention of my personal financial status," Walker wrote. "Yet, no one could ascertain that these items would be discussed at that meeting by looking at the agenda."
Walker urged the district attorney to promptly prosecute the violation.
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