/ Opinions / Which side are they on? Oneida County supervisors must answer to voters

Which side are they on? Oneida County supervisors must answer to voters

September 11, 2020

If there was ever any doubt — and, after years of reporting, there should not have been — it can be said the leadership of Oneida County is totally contemptuous of public accountability, so secretive in the way it fashions so-called “public policy” and spends taxpayer dollars that it can truly be called a government of the special interests, by the special interests, and for the special interests.

This week, when other local government officials fulfilled records requests with lightning speed — some requests more extensive than that asked of Oneida County — it became obvious to all Oneida County is in a special category when it comes to its disdain for transparency.

Oneida County isn’t practicing business as usual, it’s practicing business as unusual — unusual in its brazen defiance of the public records law, unusual in its refusal to turn over the information the public has a right to know and that is critical to accountability, unusual in its proud mockery of the declared public policy of the state that “all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them.”

How does Oneida County fulfill that declared public policy? One way it does so is by sending completely redacted letters that black out not just all content but even the names of those receiving the correspondence.

Never mind none of that comports with the law. Never mind the courts have ruled that not all correspondence with the county’s attorneys is privileged, and the county must prove the privilege in its denial. Never mind that only content can be redacted and not recipient names.

Never mind all that. That the county released such blacked out documents rather than just denying the request for the emails by citing their date, the participants, and the reason for denial shows the mindset of these arrogant elitists. They wanted to send out a picture of a brazenly blacked out document to underscore that they — and they alone — are privy to the public’s information.

That they and they alone are entitled to the reasons they do what they do, and even to the decisions they make, and the blacked out letter is to tell the public in no uncertain terms that Oneida County government is none of their business.

Oneida County taxpayers should be outraged, not merely by the denial of information without any reason but by the deeply offensive mockery of the law and of the people such behavior represents.

The officials most to blame are county board chairman Dave Hintz and corporation counsel Brian Desmond. First, Mr. Desmond’s outstanding incompetence and obstinance in open records has already cost taxpayers thousands of dollars over the years. He can be trusted to make boneheaded arguments.

But real responsibility falls no less on Mr. Hintz’s shoulders. He is the custodian of his records, after all, and he is responsible for a reasoned response. It is his responsibility to make sure any review he asks by the corporation counsel is conducted in timely fashion. 

In fact, he was under no obligation to have Mr. Desmond review the records at all. For one thing, there’s that incompetence and obstinance. Neither Vilas County board chairman Ron De Bruyne nor Minocqua town chairman Mark Hartzheim sought such review.

To be sure, Mr. Hintz should be perfectly capable of deciding whether a record is privileged legal advice without needing the corporation counsel to conduct a broad review stretching out over many months, only to come in severely lacking in legal reasoning. In fact, it’s his job, as the law points out: “(t)he legal custodian shall be vested by the authority with the full legal power to render decisions and carry out the duties of the authority under the (records law).”

Then again, after Mr. Hintz denied some records related to the county’s pandemic response, he reconsidered and released them. From our review, it appears that the records were merely case studies from other counties and localities and other similarly generic material, all no-brainers that should have been released without a thought, much less receiving an attorney’s costly review.

It makes us wonder what else has been withheld that should have been released almost automatically. It calls into question the ability of Mr. Hintz and the attorneys to conduct reasonable and timely balancing tests.

Indeed, they can’t or don’t, and resort instead to claiming illegal blanket exemptions.

But none of this is rocket science, and even these two should be able to make reasonable calls just like other officials have done. Simply put, any redaction or denial must be rare, must qualify under a specific exemption that is narrowly construed, and must be explained. 

Here’s the red flags they should pay attention to: If the denials and redactions aren’t rare, they’re in troubled waters. If they have to look for an exemption rather than immediately recognizing it in the specific records, they are in troubled waters. If they can’t reasonably explain the denial to the public, with the topics defined, they are in troubled waters.

Of course, these two could be playing dumb like a fox.

After all, Mr. Hintz’s special interest connections run deep, having spent a career at Exxon. That’s a company long plagued by transparency troubles, accused of secrecy over taxes, accused of secrecy over ruptured pipelines, accused of secrecy over oil spills. It’s a culture of corporate cloak and dagger.

We don’t know if Mr. Hintz adhered to that philosophy but he was certainly embedded in it for many years. In any event, the chairman now works not for a corporate entity that cherishes concealment but a public entity whose declared public policy is transparency.

The questions about special interests and conflicts of interest don’t end there. Now we learn that assisting Mr. Desmond in his review and redaction of Mr. Hintz’s records was none other than attorney Andrew Smith, the former Oneida County board chairman, who was assigned by the insurance company.

This is troubling on so many levels it is almost impossible to comprehend. First, being a former board chairman should by itself disqualify him for the task, given the former chairman’s personal and political ties within county government.

Second, as county board chairman back in the 2000s, Mr. Smith was notoriously famous for his closed government policies, getting an ‘F’ in our county sunshine ratings. To cite just one example, on a another attorney-client privilege matter, way back in 2004, Mr. Smith tried to argue that only the full county board and not an individual records custodian — you know, the actual client — could waive attorney-client privilege, when the law clearly states that, as we just stated, “(t)he legal custodian shall be vested by the authority with the full legal power to render decisions and carry out the duties of the authority under the (records law).”

Second, underscoring his vast contempt for average citizens, as a member of the Human Services Board, Mr. Smith refused to acknowledge whistleblower efforts to call attention to egregious conduct inside the Human Service Center at the time, even though he sat on the agency’s board: “It’s hard to top his refusal to return phone calls to citizens concerned about mismanagement at the Human Service Center, where he sits on the board and in which Oneida County is heavily invested,” we wrote. “Apparently Mr. Smith answers only to the special interests he serves.”

And we wondered that same year about the relatively new corporation counsel Brian Desmond and his early bad track record on openness: “For some time, we wondered why Mr. (Larry) Heath would endorse Mr. Desmond as his successor, but now we are beginning to see the reason, for Mr. Desmond is following in the footsteps of the worst open records and open government individual to come down the pike in a long time. The only reason Mr. Desmond gets a ‘D’ is because we're not quite sure if he is working for himself or the good-old-boys network allied with county board chairman Andy Smith.”

After all these years, we know the answer to that. He’s bad on his own, but apparently Mr. Smith still calls the shots, at least when it comes to open records. All of which leads us to wonder: Just who is the county board chairman, Dave Hintz or Andrew Smith? 

Another: Why does it take two lawyers — one an outside counsel — and who knows how many months to review a simple open records request, when other government officials are releasing as many documents in hours and days?

How much did this review of records cost? How many hours did it take to review the records, and how many records were reviewed? How many were reviewed needlessly?

These are questions taxpayers need answered, and we will get those answers.

The only other questions remaining are whether Oneida County supervisors are going to endorse this leadership and this conduct or demand a new and transparent way. To that end, we have sent out a survey to all supervisors asking whether they are satisfied with the current records policies, whether they endorse chairman Hintz’s policy of complete secrecy in attorney communications, and whether they stand behind the actions of the corporation counsel.

With this latest debacle, we need to know. The voters and taxpayers need to know whose interests are being served. We will no longer let individual supervisors sit in the shadows and claim ignorance.

Finally, supervisors in the Lakeland area especially need to answer these questions, and they need to voice whether they believe the Rhinelander-centric decision-making in the county is serving the interests of the entire county or just those of Rhinelander. 

Minocqua alone accounts for about 25% of the county’s property tax revenues. Add in Woodruff, Hazelhurst, and Lake Tomahawk and it’s significantly more. Are we getting 25% and more of the county’s programs and services? Are we getting our fair share? And are the taxpayers getting the information they need to hold the county board accountable for the tax dollars we pay?

We’ll close with an analogy. The courts have determined that there is no wiggle room for officials when presented with a records request. They must deny the request or fulfill it. Period.

The same goes for supervisors now. There is no wiggle room here. Supervisors must declare themselves to be on the side of openness or secrecy. Period.

We, and all voters, await the answers.

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