Empower Wisconsin | April 29, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — While Gov. Tony Evers’ works over the constitution, his Tourism chief appears to be breaking Wisconsin’s open records laws.
Not only did the Department of Tourism Secretary-designee Sara Meaney fail to publicly notice last Friday’s online meeting of the Governor’s Council on Tourism, she told a staff member there was no need to record the meeting, apparently to avoid open records requests from a lawmaker who serves on the council.
In an email obtained by Empower Wisconsin, Meaney notes that approximately 400 invitations went out to CEOs and leaders of statewide convention and visitor bureaus, chambers of commerce, and business organizations that “intersect with the tourism industry.” Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. CEO and Secretary-designee Missy Hughes and Meaney led the video briefing.
Some stakeholders, however, said they never received an invitation, according to emails. The public certainly wasn’t invited.
The meeting was about Evers’ controversial Badger Bounce Back plan to slowly wind down his constitutionally suspect lockdown orders during the COVID-19 outbreak. Meaney wrote that “it is critical to formulate a plan inclusive of each tourism industry sector to safely reopen when public health authorities give us the green light.” But it’s clear Meaney’s state tourism team was interested in answering many of the questions submitted by participants, according to some of the tourism council members.
Just days before, as Empower Wisconsin first reported, Meaney in an email told state Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) and state Rep. Travis Tranel (R-Cuba City) that the Governor’s Council on Tourism wouldn’t meet until May 26 — during the Governor’s Conference on Tourism in Madison, the day Evers’ extended lockdown is supposed to end. The conference has been postponed “as a result of the public health emergency.”
Soon after Empower Wisconsin’s story published, the tourism department sent out their video meeting invitation.
The meeting should have been publicly noticed, according to the Wisconsin Legislative Council.
“Yes, under Wisconsin Supreme Court precedent, this is presumptively a meeting of the council for purposes of the open meetings law,” according to an email from a Legislative Council attorney sent to lawmakers.
More troubling, is the conversation that Meaney and Tourism comms director Craig Trost had just minutes before the meeting started.
A technology assistant was heard asking Trost and Meaney whether they wanted to record the meeting. Trost snidely responded, “And therefore Senator Jacque will be able to open records request it immediately after it’s over.”
Meaney then advised, “I don’t think there is a need to record it.”
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 the Tourism department. As Empower Wisconsin has reported, the secretary-designee has pushed a liberal, political agenda at the agency. She also has failed to follow the state’s open records laws in the past.
“There have been a number of these open meetings questions in the past, and they have lawyered up,” Jacque said. “Why would you not want to make sure you had a recording of that to reference later? That seems like malpractice from a public policy perspective.”