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The Lakeland Times | Minocqua, Wisc.

Jim Tait 02/01-02/28/17

home : opinions : opinions August 19, 2017

4/14/2017 7:29:00 AM
Contempt for the law continues in Oneida County

Oneida County supervisors just don't get it, at least most of them, and we are beginning to believe they never will.

What they don't get is that they are not above the law. They are not a supremely royal class that can simply do as it pleases while ordering the rest of us around.

Last year, supervisor Billy Fried more than aptly illustrated this elitist thinking among elected supervisors when, during a public-safety committee meeting, he suggested that Lakeland Times publisher Gregg Walker shouldn't criticize public workers or ask tough questions because the committee chairman had been "gracious enough" to allow Walker to speak to the committee.

In other words, if we allow you to speak, we expect you to say nice things.

As we stated then, the very idea that elected officials are "gracious" enough to "allow" citizens to speak at their meetings should be offensive to every Oneida County citizen. It certainly spoke volumes about how Fried views his and other supervisors' role: They are the kings and queens, and we are their subjects.

This kind of thinking has not been without serious consequences. It has led to a belief among supervisors that they are above the law itself. In this viewpoint, laws are for everybody else, not for them.

And so it has led the county to thumb its collective nose at the state's open records and open meetings laws. It led the county into contesting and losing an obviously valid request for law enforcement records that cost taxpayers more than $50,000.

It led to a brazen violation of the open-meetings law by the labor relations and employee services committee, for which every supervisor was ordered by the district attorney to undergo remedial training.

A month later, that attitude led the county board to commit another open-meetings violation, this time a posting infraction that the board had been explicitly warned about just a month earlier.

Now, last week, along comes supervisor Bob Mott complaining about having to go to the trouble of following the law.

First off, as we have reported, in a discussion about properly apprising citizens about what will be discussed at meetings, Mott suggested that shouldn't be something to worry about because no one cares: "I might ask how many citizens call the county clerk and say 'Geez, I didn't realize what was happening on that agenda item,'" he said at an administration committee meeting.

In other words, supervisors should not worry about a discussion item not being posted because citizens are obviously not upset about hidden agenda items. It apparently never occurs to Mott that they may not be upset precisely because agenda items can be hidden and citizens not told what supervisors are up to.

It gets worse. Mott did allow that he wanted to do things right, but he suggested staff shouldn't take too much time to make sure they are following the law. "...(A)t some point, how long do you spend? I know [our secretaries] spent four hours working on that agenda. Is that time well spent if it makes it right? We shouldn't have to do it every time. Maybe the first time, but after that it's accepted."

So, if you get it wrong the first time, you're allowed to get it wrong forever.

It gets even worse.

Mott then suggested he shouldn't be held accountable for breaking the law precisely because he's not an expert and might not know what's right or wrong.

"As a committee chairman, I am not an expert in the law and be able to look at an agenda and say, 'Yeah, by law, this is OK,'" Mott said. "We can't even get the attorney general's office to give us an opinion. How am I, as an individual, as the head of a department - chair of a department - supposed to look at it and say by law, 'Are all things OK there?' We can't even get an opinion."

Well, for starters, as reporter Nick Sabato pointed out, there's a published Department of Justice compliance manual he could refer to. And, if that doesn't answer all the questions he may have, he should consult the county's corporation counsel.

Oh, that's right. The legal advice of this county's corporation counsel is virtually worthless, so it would be like asking the wall, and Mott apparently knows this. Still, the county should hire a competent county attorney to give them that option.

Here's the thing, though. Ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it. We all know that, except for supervisors like Mott who believe they stand above the law and shouldn't have to figure it out.

This is arrogance taken to its hypocritical and absurd conclusion. Here is a supervisor who complains about having to know the law, who complains about spending the time to make sure the law is followed, who believes that secrecy is the secret to avoiding complaint calls from pesky citizens, and yet this same supervisor votes on and passes county ordinances he expects other citizens to follow.

County rules and regulations are everywhere, from nuisance ordinances to campgrounds to dog ownership to food inspections. Most burdensome and complex of all, perhaps, is the phalanx of zoning rules and shoreland regulations that restrict what private citizens can do with their property.

Mott surely expects these laws to be followed, and he surely expects that there will be consequences if they are not.

Indeed, Mott has long been a proponent of having the county enact stricter regulations on Oneida County citizens than those demanded by the state when it comes to shoreland properties. Would he demand that those more restrictive regulations be followed? Would he think property owners should be able to break the law because they didn't know any better, because they weren't zoning experts?

Would Mott not mind if a citizen wanted to be let off the hook because it just took too much time to figure out the correct zoning law? Would he think it OK if a citizen got to violate the law forever after violating it the first time?

We think if average citizens broke Mott's precious shoreland zoning rules and were allowed to get away with doing so, he would be howling from the rafters.

In fact, countless citizens have been punished for unknowingly violating exacting and tough rules and regulations over the years, some that were eventually rescinded because they were the work of heartless bureaucrats.

People have lost their property and their homes, and right here in Oneida County, because they did not follow the dictates of often overzealous bureaucrats.

But when it comes to following rules and regulations and laws himself, Bob Mott doesn't want to be bothered. He doesn't want to be held accountable.

This mindset by elected officials in this county - that the rules and regulations they pass are for others to follow and to be punished if they don't, while officials can do as they please - is at the heart of what is wrong in Oneida County.

It is a continuing contempt for the law that springs from arrogance and hypocrisy, and it will continue so long as voters allow it to.

Make no mistake, until voters take action at the ballot box, they will suffer the consequences of this arrogance and hypocrisy, in the form of ever higher taxes and ever stricter regulations, and ever more costly penalties for not following the whims of these two-bit would-be dictators.

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