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Evers’ scandal-plagued tourism chief steps down

Empower Wisconsin | Nov. 27, 2020

By M.D. Kittle 

MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers’ controversial tourism chief is stepping down after two rocky years at the helm of a nonpartisan agency she infused with a liberal agenda.  

Sara Meaney, secretary-designee of the state Department of Tourism, more than likely wouldn’t have survived her Senate confirmation hearing, multiple legislative sources tell Empower Wisconsin. Her sharpest critics certainly are shedding no tears over her departure. 

“I hope the governor will take advantage of Sara Meaney’s resignation and put someone in the position who can actually promote tourism and do the job right,” a Republican Senate source told Empower Wisconsin. 

A press release issued by Evers said Meaney will step down later this month “to take a career opportunity outside of state government.” What that opportunity is, Evers didn’t say. Meaney’s time inside state government, according to her critics, has been an unqualified disaster. 

Evers asserts Meaney has “been a relentless advocate for the tourism industry.” She has been a relentless advocate for liberal politics inside what has traditionally been an apolitical state agency. 

In October 2019, Meaney got caught breaking state law when she led an online election for officers on the Governor’s Council on Tourism. In so doing, she drove out a long-time and highly respected council member who had disagreed with some of the political policies Meaney was carrying out.  

In what some might now see as a foreshadowing of the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin’s most liberal counties, the three rounds of tourism council voting were marred by confusion and controversy. Sources say only some members of the 21-member council were able to vote. In some cases, there were improper votes cast or some council members were said to have voted multiple times.

Sources say Meaney and Evers’ legal team pushed changes to reflect the governor’s liberal agenda.

At the July 2019 tourism council meeting, the secretary-designee discussed her restructuring of the council’s committees to “provide more clarity, better address diversity and equality, and create alignment in the work being done.”

“Secretary-designee Meaney explained that the committee documents are based on statute and consultation with our legal staff. Anything that is not covered by statute is based on best practices and can be adjusted over time to accomplish our stated goals,” state the July 2019 council meeting minutes.

“The Diversity Equity Inclusion (DEI) committee was established to address concerns raised in the strategic plan regarding developing travel experiences that welcome everyone,” the minutes note.

Meaney also has presided over an agency that many believe has been slow to help a devastated tourism industry  anticipated to lose billions of dollars because of COVID-19 and the Evers administration’s lockdowns and restrictions.  

State Sen. Andre Jacque — chair of the Senate’s Committee on Local Government, Small Business, Tourism and Workforce Development — has been critical of Meaney’s handling of the Tourism department. She also has, like her boss, failed to follow basic state open records laws. 

Jacque declined to comment for this story. 

Meaney leaves before the Republican-led Senate calls a long overdue vote on the secretary-designee’s confirmation. Meaney faced long odds in clearing a Senate vote, several sources tell Empower Wisconsin. The Tourism Committee had recommended her confirmation in September 2019 — before word of the tourism council election scandal. 

Evers appointed Meaney after his election victory in late 2018. She had served as chief marketing and development officer for Milwaukee Film, the organization behind the Milwaukee Film Festival. Evers just handed out $137,000 grant — the largest dollar award — to Meaney’s former employer. Her very close friend, Secretary of Administration Joel Brennan, awarded Milwaukee Film a $44,000 COVID-19 Movie Theater Grant. Both awards are being funded from the nearly $2 billion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act cash allocated to the state. 

Tourism Deputy Secretary Anne Sayers, who previously worked for liberal environmental groups, will serve as interim department secretary. It’s not clear whether Evers plans to nominate Sayers for the secretary post. 

‘I’m sure the governor will name a replacement and that individual will also get the same scrutiny from the Senate that Sara Meaney underwent,” a Republican Senate staffer told Empower Wisconsin. 

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