/ Opinions / In Oneida County, a vote for transparency and a call for action

In Oneida County, a vote for transparency and a call for action

September 18, 2020

Once upon a time, in a far, far away place called Upside Down Land, people in a strange little universe known as the Oneida County Courthouse did everything in reverse.

They stitched closed the tops of their pants pockets and left the bottoms open. They blindfolded themselves so they could see better. They broke the law so they could enforce it, and, when they wanted to discuss open government, they did so behind closed doors.

At least that was the way things were in Oneida County until Tuesday, when, on an 11-10 vote, Oneida County supervisors refused to go into closed session to discuss and develop strategy for — wait for it — a nonexistent lawsuit. 

So, for starters, let’s congratulate and thank the 11 supervisors who took a right-side up stand for transparency: Billy Fried, Bill Liebert, Ted Cushing, Mike Timmons, Bob Almekinder, Jack Sorensen, Scott Holewinski, Tom Kelly, Greg Pence, Greg Oettinger, and Alan VanRaalte.

Voters should remember them the next time they run.

And voters should remember those who supported darkness and secrecy, too, for, the honest truth is, they have no business being in government, period: Dave Hintz, Sonny Paszak, Steven Schreier, Russ Fisher, Bob Mott, Jim Winkler, Bob Thome, Mitchell Ives, Stephanie Sowatzka, and Lance Krolczyk.

Somehow on Tuesday, openness prevailed at least temporarily, and, as the smoke settles, we can make some frank observations about the meeting and its ramifications.

First, the tenure of Dave Hintz as board chairman has come to a disgraceful end. Oh, he is still chairman in name, but his time as an effective leader is done. That thunderclap heard in the county board room on Tuesday was a startling, crashing deliverance of a vote of no confidence in Mr. Hintz’s stewardship.

It was a vote well deserved, crowned by his ludicrous insistence on holding a closed session on open government. Once, we thought Mr. Hintz gave Oneida County hope, especially when it came to transparency and fiscal responsibility. But our hopes slowly faded as Mr. Hintz supported big government and the bureaucracy more and more. 

The light went out completely in recent months as Mr. Hintz tethered his future to the notoriously inept and brazenly anti-transparent corporation counsel, Brian Desmond.

To be sure, supervisor Billy Fried came to Mr. Hintz’s defense this week, saying the chairman was the recipient of “poor legal advice.” That he most certainly was.

The problem is, Mr. Desmond is well known for giving bad legal advice, so much so that we are tempted to look and see if it is part of his job description. To cite just a couple of examples, there was the open records loss on sheriff’s department records, which cost taxpayers $50,000 and taught sheriff Grady Hartman a valuable lesson — to stay away from the corporation counsel’s advice as much as possible.

Mr. Desmond, too, led the county down the primrose path on the ability of the county to regulate piers, a case we warned repeatedly the county was bound to lose, only to, well, lose. That’s what Mr. Desmond does, he loses, and he turns winners into losers. Just ask Dave Hintz.

We’re being tough because it didn’t have to be this way. Mr. Hintz could have chosen a different path. He didn’t.

So we have to conclude, either Mr. Hintz is not capable of thinking for himself, so weak in that capacity that he must consult with one of the more inept counsels we have ever seen, or, the other alternative is, he actually agrees with these closed-government policies.

We wouldn’t be surprised, given his days as an Exxon paper pusher and bean counter.

Let’s examine how things could have been so easily different. 

For one thing, Mr. Hintz could have scheduled the closed session he wanted as an open session, especially when there was no lawsuit to plan strategy for. Tell us, Mr. Hintz, how do you plan to counter allegations when you have no clue what might be alleged in a complaint, or if there will even be a complaint? 

Is fortune telling a wise use of taxpayer time, money, and resources? Inquiring minds want to know.

Then, too, at the county board meeting Mr. Hintz could have challenged Mr. Desmond when the corporation counsel blatantly misquoted the open records law, stating that a records request must have both a time limit and a subject matter, when the law clearly states that a records request must have a time limit or a subject matter. 

It’s an important distinction, one that the forces of darkness are using increasingly as a tool to thwart public access to public information. The lack of a subject matter is an impermissible fishing expedition, they say, misquoting the state statute and ignoring court rulings on the issue.

Some years ago, when The Times was accused of a similar lack of specificity in making a records request, Vilas County judge Neal “Chip” Nielsen, one of the all-time best judges when it comes to open government, rejected the argument and came up with this outstanding conclusion: “The school district says The Lakeland Times is on a fishing expedition,” Nielsen said. “It might be, but (in Wisconsin) there’s no closed season, no bag limits, and no license required for that kind of fishing.”

Mr. Hintz could have called out Mr. Desmond not just for giving bad advice but for spreading a factually inaccurate reading of state statute. Giving supervisors incorrect legal language should be grounds for immediate termination, and Mr. Hintz could have challenged Mr. Desmond. Instead, he was silent on the issue, and, indeed, actually used the same argument in his response letter to The Times.

How sad. Mr. Hintz could have been remembered as the Chip Nielsen of county board chairpersons; instead his legacy will be that of a clone of Brian Desmond.

Likewise, Mr. Hintz bought in on the baloney that all correspondence between supervisors and county attorneys is privileged and automatically exempt from release. Let us use an example to show that such a sweeping blanket privilege cannot stand, in addition to the case law already well established.

Some time ago, when a county committee was talking about ways to increase revenues, Mr. Desmond, who was sitting in on the meeting, chimed in — without being asked — with his own idea: How about a wheel tax? He went on to discuss how other counties were doing it. 

It rated a news article, but that’s not the point. The point is, nobody would have ever considered going into closed session to hear Mr. Desmond’s opinions on raising revenue.

But had Mr. Desmond kept silent, and then went to his office and wrote a memo to every supervisor floating his notion of a wheel tax, saying he had heard ideas and just wanted to throw his two cents in, that memo would be considered privileged and unreleasable, according to current Oneida County policy. 

Does anyone really believe in their heart that such policy opinions should be withheld from the public? Does Mr. Hintz really believe it?

Later, if a wheel tax passed, nobody would ever know that the corporation counsel — a bureaucrat — was the one first peddling higher taxes for Oneida County citizens. And, if supervisors bring Mr. Desmond in on more of their policy conversations, they can claim privilege for all of it, depriving citizens of critical access to policy information they have a right to know.

Mr. Hintz could have said, “No, this county will not operate in such secrecy, it is a violation of the public trust.” 

Instead, he embraced it.

But enough of Mr. Hintz. He stuck his own head into the oven of darkness. The question is, what will the county board do now with Brian Desmond, who has emerged as the most powerful figure in Oneida County government?

Will Tuesday’s vote trigger a movement toward new county board leadership, a new corporation counsel, and revamped open government policies and ordinances, or will it be just a momentary blip?

At the meeting, Mr. Fried admirably called for just such a revamping. That process should get underway immediately — in open session and with members of the public engaged. It must not be allowed to be a public charade, a show whose only goal is to make a mockery of the very transparency it is supposed to increase.

That’s a favorite tool of the Upside Down proponents of secrecy— pursuing reform by trying to kill it. It’s why we reject Mr. Sorensen’s proposal this week to have an outside counsel do another seminar on open government. It would likely be run by the same anti-transparency hack that did the last one.

It’s nonsense and a waste of time and money. What is needed is not a seminar, but action.

In that regard, we recall the late supervisor Gary Baier, who, in our opinion, did more than anybody in decades to reform Oneida County government. 

He was particularly successful in property rights, leading a charge to fire the notoriously anti-property rights (and pro-closed government) corporation counsel Larry Heath, who had amassed enormous power, much like Mr. Desmond has today.

In the end, Mr. Baier’s resolution to fire Mr. Heath failed on a 10-10 tie vote, but the damage was done. Mr. Heath’s power was effectively diminished, his reputation and legacy gone, and soon thereafter he retired.

Mr. Hintz would do well to follow in Mr. Heath’s footsteps. Either way, our question is, who will now stand up and take Mr. Baier’s place? Who will stand up for the voters and taxpayers of Oneida County? Who will lead the effort to give the citizens of Oneida County the voice they deserve and the information they own?

On Tuesday, one obstructionist went down under an unexpected hail of arrows — arrows of concern making the point that enough is enough. 

One down, one to go to make Upside Down Land right-side up again.

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