/ Opinions / More ‘business as usual’ in Oneida County government, more bad government

More ‘business as usual’ in Oneida County government, more bad government

August 21, 2020

This week, the Oneida County Board of Supervisors, an entity that is already one of the worst government bodies in Wisconsin when it comes to open government, took another turn down the dark road, voting to pay supervisors per diems for attending meetings virtually rather than actually showing up in person.

Now such a policy during the pandemic is one thing, but allowing such payments permanently — which is what the board voted to do — is quite another, and citizens should be gravely concerned.

Indeed, at this week’s county board meeting, county board chairman Dave Hintz said it is his hope that allowing supervisors to stay home and get paid for virtual participation in meetings — to shirk their public duties, if we might translate — becomes “business as usual.”

That’s worth noting because “business as usual” in this county usually involves secrecy, delays, twisted readings of the law, and, often enough, outright violations of open government statutes, all in attempts to avoid accountability to taxpayers and voters. So a promise to make any particular policy “business as usual” should scare the wits out of all of us.

The pandemic aside, such a policy actually incentivizes supervisors not to venture out into the public, even though they are — you guessed it — public officials. And it erects yet another wall behind which supervisors can hide their actions, making government even less transparent than it already is.

It’s quite a fortress Oneida County is building under the supposed leadership of county board chairman Dave Hintz, though we increasingly suspect Mr. Hintz is little more than a bobblehead and the county is more and more under the direction of corporation counsel Brian Desmond, if responses to open records requests are any indication.

The bottom line is, Oneida County supervisors are becoming more unaccountable by the day.

To be sure, to their credit, a few supervisors rose up to express their own concerns about the dangers of the virtual meeting path: supervisors Steven Schreier (curiously), Alan VanRaalte, and Bill Liebert in particular.

To make clear, we are not talking about expanded access to the public. Providing public access to county meetings through Zoom, telephone, and video link (which we are told is coming) should be advanced and made permanent. Giving access to those who cannot afford to travel long distances, or cannot logistically do so, or who cannot attend for medical or other reasons, is a remarkable step forward.

But while technology can enhance meeting access for the public, it can also foreclose that access — and access to public officials themselves — if, on the other end, supervisors themselves stop coming to meetings. For one thing, to flip the access argument on its head, many people in the rural Northwoods lack the necessary technology to participate remotely.

In any event, citizens should be able to choose to use technology to participate, but they should also retain the choice to go personally to public meetings where they can not only participate but engage their elected representatives face-to-face.

Such interaction is the lifeblood of democracy. If it is lost, if government officials stay at home and hide behind their computers, they become quite like the Wizard of Oz: a fraud hiding behind a computer curtain bellowing into a microphone, while all that we Dorothys see is a giant scary head that, in reality, is nothing more than an illusion.

We won’t come to know our supervisors by watching their scary heads bob and weave about on the Zoom screen; we’ll only know the illusion they project. That’s what you get without body language, without eye contact, without contextual facial expressions.

It won’t be everybody together in the public square, interacting in local town halls. It’ll be us versus them, and “them” will be lording over us from on high in the cloud.

Supervisors pointed out other troubling concerns.

Mr. Schreier correctly talked about obligations and expectations, though he doesn’t seem to recognize his own obligations under the public records laws. Still, he asked, don’t we expect essential workers to show up on site to work, pandemic or no pandemic? 

Well, yes, we do. And aren’t county board supervisors — the very people we elect to run our government — essential workers? You bet they are, and they should get up and get to the courthouse for meetings.

Some countered that people must prepare, or not, the same for virtual meetings as they do for in-person meetings, and supervisor Bob Mott opined that some people who are at the meetings aren’t at the meetings, “if you know what I mean.”

We do know what he means. The difference is, the public can see when a supervisor is asleep at the wheel at an in-person meeting but not so much when the pajamaed supervisor is at home eating pancakes and playing games on the hand-held while making an appearance every once in a while in front of the Zoom screen.

Mr. Mott also opined that if the public doesn’t like a supervisor not attending meetings, the public can vote that person out every two years. True, but why deal with a problem after the fact rather the preventing the problem in the first place? This argument is akin to one made by supervisor Ted Cushing, who says the board can always revisit the issue if it doesn’t work out.

Again, why have to deal with a mess rather than prevent it? Arguments that we can always vote somebody out or deal later with the disaster we are about to create are red flags that the idea isn’t a very good one in the first place. Constant reassurances that we can change something later are snake oils because in reality that’s always easier said than done.

So why encourage a bad practice in the first place? Why encourage people to run for the board simply because they know full well they can sit at home and lollygag and collect per diem?

The “fix it later” argument is like saying let’s repeal the public records law — which the GOP tried to do in 2015 — because we can revisit it later if it’s a bad idea. Well, the GOP knew it was a bad idea; that’s why they tried to use their equivalent of a virtual meeting to do it, a last-minute late-night holiday weekend inclusion of the repeal in the budget bill.

It’s the job of elected officials to decide in open, transparent, and publicly attended forums whether an idea is good or bad, not just pass all ideas because they can fix them later. That’s a refrain that is heard too often around the courthouse.

In reality, it’s a cry that’s made only when certain supervisors want to pass what they know is a bad idea. If you don’t believe us, just propose eliminating the UW Extension, and that, if it’s a bad idea, we can just fix it later. Propose that and see what those who are spewing this line would have to say.

Mr. Cushing points out that companies and corporations and governments everywhere are doing virtual meetings, and likely won’t go back, and that maybe virtual meetings are more productive and efficient.

That may be, but at what cost? Lost is the insight and good decision making that comes from personal interaction. Lost is the focus on the issue because of distractions at home: The dog is barking; the kettle is whistling; good Lord, someone is at the door and I don’t have any pants on.

Beau Ballin, a vice president of CWT Meetings & Events, has had a lot to say about why in-person meetings are best even for corporations. 

“Every meeting has a purpose,” Ballin told Corporate & Incentives Travel Magazine. “Most fall into the categories of engaging attendees to sell more, buy more or learn more. Ultimately, these meetings drive bottom-line profitability for their sponsoring organizations. The bottom line: It’s not about which meetings are best for face-to-face, but rather can you afford not to meet in person?”

In-person meetings create emotional connections to peers and messaging visions, Ballin said, while virtual meetings lack the connectivity driven by experience and emotion.

Then there’s this, as communications coach Nick Morgan pointed out in Forbes, the unconscious mind handles the chore of sensing other people’s attitudes and intents from body language, and without that second stream of information it’s very hard to remember anything. 

That’s a problem our current lot of supervisors have enough trouble with already. They sure can’t remember anything about open government laws.

On and on the problems go, but the worst is the danger that virtual meetings — again, for supervisors, not for the public’s participation — pose for transparency and open government.

One of the biggest problems that has emerged in recent years is the use of emails and texts at meetings between members of the government body as a way to discuss, deliberate, and otherwise evade the open meetings law. The guardrail for that is public attendance: People can see when elected officials are using their phones, and know it’s either for an illegal purpose or a purpose likely not related to the meeting they should be paying attention to.

There’s no such guardrail in a virtual meeting.

There are quorum issues, whereby a member who otherwise can’t participate finds a sliver of time to call in to make a quorum when there really isn’t one. It is really easy, too, to slip away from the meeting and cause a quorum to vanish, but in a virtual meeting it is virtually impossible to detect that.

In the end, while virtual meetings and participation should remain available for emergency sessions and for those with valid reasons on rare occasions, they should be the exception, not the rule, and certainly not “business as usual” as Mr. Hintz wants them to be.

The potential for mischief is great, and greater still in Oneida County government, with the failed leadership it has.

Unfortunately, “business as usual” in Oneida County has come to mean an uncompromising opposition to the public’s right to know, and this ordinance change is just more of the same.

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