September 1, 2023 at 5:30 a.m.

River News: Our View

From bad to worse in Oneida County

We suppose we should never be surprised about what is going on in Oneida County government — virtually none of it any good — and so it wasn’t much of a shock when the Oneida County district attorney completely flubbed her analysis of our complaint about the zoning committee’s actions in a public hearing related to Kirk Bangstad’s conditional use permit application.

Well, flubbed is being nice. More liked flunked. What with bad grammar (“a committee member made motion”), logical fallacies, and assertions of truth derived only from other assertions of truth, it’s hardly analysis at all.

As the story in today’s edition reveals, and as additional analysis below demonstrates, district attorney Jillian Pfeifer produced one of the most amateurish responses we have ever seen from a district attorney when she agreed with the sheriff’s department that the county zoning committee breached its rules of parliamentary procedure but then apparently didn’t see the need to call for any accountability, such as advising the sheriff to issue citations.

She also said the committee did not break the open meetings law when it failed to resume and properly post an August 9 public hearing on the CUP application, and instead noticed and held an illegal regular meeting instead. Nothing to see there, she concluded.

To be fair, Ms. Pfeifer is a wet-behind-the-ears rookie who has served her entire legal career cocooned inside the Oneida County district attorney’s office, which has a history of benign neglect for the open government laws of the state, at best, and disdain for the laws, at worst. 

Past district attorneys have used almost comical misunderstandings of the law to always allow officials to escape accountability for their lack of transparency, and this is the culture in which Ms. Pfeifer has grown up and been educated in. So we have moved from buffoonery to cocoonery, but the result is the same. The good-old-girl acorns don’t fall far from the bureaucratic tree.

Her analysis not only defies common sense but betrays an inability or unwillingness to read the clear language of the law, or, in this case, the Oneida County code of ordinances. Don’t take the training wheels off her bike just yet.

Ms. Pfeifer opines that the zoning committee did not break the open meetings law when it reconvened its public hearing without properly noticing it because the public hearing had in fact been concluded the week before, on August 2, and they were merely taking up a vote on the matter in a regular meeting, which is allowed.

And yet, viewed through the lens of common sense, a mountain of evidence proves that the meeting was a continuation of the public hearing, not a separate meeting. For one thing, if they had properly adjourned the meeting — which they did not — the matter would have come before the committee in a regular meeting as unfinished business. 

It did not. The committee started by saying the previous week’s motion was still on the table and had to be withdrawn and a new motion made. Again, common sense tells anyone who is not a government official that the hearing has resumed right where it left off the previous week, and, indeed, that was the exact wording of zoning committee chairman Scott Holewinski’s August 2 motion to “adjourn the meeting to the August 9th meeting and continue.”

Mr. Fugle, too, called for “adjourning and reconvening.”

How clearer could the intent be? Yet, from her sequestered walls inside the district attorney’s office, Ms. Pfeifer was blinded to the precise language of the committee. 

She was also blinded to the precise language of the county’s parliamentary rules of procedure, which the county code requires committees to follow. Under that language, the motion to adjourn was out of order, and so the hearing could not be legally ended. When the committee took up the CUP application again, it clearly was reconvening an illegally adjourned meeting, and was doing so in another illegal meeting.

Even that aside, the county’s rules of parliamentary procedure point out that a motion to adjourn to a specific time, as this one was, does not end the meeting but continues it to that stated time.

So, either way, it was the resumption of a public hearing. This is all there in black and white, and yet the district attorney could not see it. 

Guess it’s hard to read — or critically think — in a tiny cocoon.

The most appalling aspect of the entire situation is that, by finding that the county zoning committee violated the county code, and then letting them get away with it, the district attorney has made what was a bad situation an even worse situation.

Indeed, Ms. Pfeifer is virtually screaming at the top of her lungs that any committee can follow whatever rules they want, or none at all, and there will be no consequences. Ms. Pfeifer has single-handedly dismantled the guardrails that protected the public from conniving government officials who are out to subvert the public’s will.

This is in fact a textbook case of that subversion. In her response, Ms. Pfeiffer says the public hearing was concluded, in other words, there was no more fact-finding to be done, no more testimony to be had, only the vote.

Well, to come to this tortured conclusion, Ms. Pfeifer had to effectively gouge out the eyes and puncture the ear drums of Lady Justice so she could not see or hear what Mr. Fugle told the committee would happen after adjourning the August 2 meeting and before the August 9 meeting: More fact-finding.

“Certainly there could be an amendment to that motion at the next meeting pending on if there’s further information or [inaudible] from the applicant,” Fugle said at the time.

And that is just what happened. At the very outset of the August 9 meeting, Mr. Bangstad’s attorney immediately announced that he had had a productive meeting with Mr. Fugle, that progress was being made, and so he asked that the motion to deny be withdrawn. It was, with minimal discussion, and then the committee voted to give Mr. Bangstad more time.

There was also a closed session before the meeting, though the parties swear nothing about the CUP application was discussed.

Now let’s digest all this. On the one hand, on August 2, the committee, having just listened to public testimony and evidence from all sides, had made a motion to deny the permit, and clearly was poised to do so. Everything was on the table and in the public eye, from testimony to public comment to deliberation. A final vote would have indeed ended the public hearing.

Instead, the committee chairman, acting on corporation counsel’s advice, used an out-of-order motion to illegally stop the meeting before the vote. In the following week, instead of everything being in the public eye, the whole matter slithered behind closed doors, where attorneys suddenly made enlightening progress. When finally the public was able to watch again, there was now a sudden shift in the thinking of the committee and what was going to be a clear vote for denial in a public deliberation now became a clear (though not unanimous) vote for more time after meetings in private settings.

What was all transparent the week before was now being conducted out of the public eye by government officials behind closed doors — negotiations, new information, sudden compassion to overlook so many repeated violations that the previous permit was revoked.

So just what was that progress that engendered such a change of heart? We don’t know because the details were not told to the committee, at least not in the public meeting. Were they privately told something beforehand that influenced their thinking and votes? They must have been. Either that or they blindly took the lawyers’ word that everything was good and so they could just ignore the powerful record that had been presented in public the week before.

How is any of this anything but an egregious miscarriage of due process and democratic accountability?

And yet the district attorney saw none of it, nestled as she is and has been inside the walls of the government bureaucracy. 

Ms. Pfeifer’s entire analysis proceeded from a logical fallacy — that somehow the committee concluded the public hearing on August 2 before making the motion to deny the permit. And yet nowhere does she produce any evidence to support that claim. All she can muster is that “based on the information available,” the motion was made after the hearing was over.

On what basis does she make this conclusion? What is that available information? We challenge her to tell us because the available information we have shows that the hearing was still going on when the motion was made.

Indeed, nowhere before the final motion does Mr. Holewinski say the public hearing is closed. They were still on the agenda topic listed as a public hearing, Nowhere is any motion made to adjourn the hearing. It was never closed before the motion to adjourn.

Lastly, Ms. Pfeifer indulged herself in making assertions of truth derived only from other assertions of truth: She quotes the August 9 agenda — ”[t]he committee held the public hearing on August 2, 2023” — and concludes that, since they did not announce August 9 as a public hearing, they had in fact had completed the hearing the week before. 

In other words, the committee completed the hearing the week before simply because the committee said it did after-the-fact. To say it another way, whatever the government says is the truth.

Oneida County these days is drifting further and further from any connection with its residents and taxpayers, especially those in the Minocqua and larger Lakeland area. And we must say, time is running short for them to right the ship.

For starters, in that direction, we recommend that at the next zoning meeting, one of the committee members who attended the August 2 meeting object to the motion to adjourn to August 9 as being out of order. 

Being a code violation, as we explained in our story, that constitutes a continuing breach in which there is no time limit to object.

The committee should then schedule a resumption of the public hearing, with proper posting, and take up where it left off. 

Meanwhile, the district attorney should reconsider and declare the August 9 meeting an illegal improperly posted meeting and declare the actions taken there null and void.

Finally, if no members of the committee want to stand up and do the right thing, the sheriff should issue citations to each person involved in the violations of county code and parliamentary procedure. 

As for the district attorney, her analysis was as baffling as it was amateurish and biased toward the government. It’s almost as if she’s running cover for the corporation counsel’s office, or she is indeed in way over her head. 

She needs immediate training in the open government laws, and a promise to do much better in the future. 

She could start right now by righting this wrong and holding the county accountable.


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