Oneida County district attorney Michael Schiek has filed a forfeiture action against Erv Teichmiller, the chairman of the Oneida-Vilas Transit Commission, for an open meetings law violation.
The charge follows an investigation by the Oneida County sheriff's department. The sheriff's department concluded that the transit commission's executive committee violated the open-meetings law in March when its members embarked on a discussion about asking Lakeland Times publisher Gregg Walker and/or The Lakeland Times/River News for a substantial donation.
However, in his action this week, Schiek said he was only charging Teichmiller and not other executive committee members because Teichmiller raised the issue and was the only member who discussed the topic in detail.
The sheriff's department's investigation began after Walker filed a complaint with the district attorney's office on April 4.
Walker filed the complaint because no topic about donations, either 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 Teichmiller.
Schiek concurred that the discussion was illegal.
In arriving at his decision, the district attorney pointed to the state Department of Justice's open meetings compliance guide, which stakes out a reasonableness rule for the sufficient noticing of meetings: "In order to draft a meeting notice that complies with the reasonableness standard, a good rule of thumb will be to ask whether the person interested in a specific subject would be aware, upon reading the notice, that the subject might be discussed," the compliance guide states.
Based upon that standard, Schiek concluded, the notice didn't comply.
"Based upon the information provided, the notice/agenda that was posted for March 29, 2019 at 8:00 a.m., does not have any information about charitable contributions under agenda items #5 or #6," Schiek wrote to Walker on May 21. "I have also reviewed the transcript of the meeting, in which Erv Teichmiller starts a discussion about contributions for buses and how Gregg Walker from The Lakeland Times should be considered."
The conversation was not proper, Schiek concluded.
"This topic of information was not an agenda item and the notice was not sufficient for the public to know this topic would be discussed," he wrote. "It is not reasonable that a person interested in such a topic would have any notice it would be discussed. Specifically, Mr. Walker was not on notice that a contribution would be discussed, as part of the public, he had a right to know."
On Wednesday, Walker said he was pleased with Schiek's decision to charge Teichmiller.
"It sends a message that violations of the open meetings laws won't necessarily be ignored in Oneida County," Walker said. "That's important because open meetings violations, especially going off agenda to discuss other items, have been rampant over the past few years. Taking legal action is the only way to stop it."
Walker acknowledged that the financial penalty wasn't great - Schiek filed for a forfeiture of $25 - but he said it creates a record for the public to judge their elected officials.
"A violation and sanction serves notice to the public that the elected official isn't friendly to open government," Walker said. "That's critical because we know the public believes in openness and transparency."
Teichmiller can contest the forfeiture action. However, if it stands, a governmental body may not reimburse him for the forfeiture, unless the enforcement action involves a real issue as to the constitutionality of the open meetings law.
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In his complaint, Walker had identified what he believed was the violation.
"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," Walker wrote. "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."
They also discussed his personal finances, Walker stated.
What's more, Walker wrote, Teichmiller and another committee member discussed putting advertising for Walker and the newspapers on the sides of buses in exchange for a donation.
In the meeting, according to the transcript, 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 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 joined in, too, though Schiek chose not to charge him.
"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.
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