The tourism plot thickens

M.D. Kittle:

New documents obtained by Empower Wisconsin  raise more red flags that Gov. Tony Evers’ tourism chief tried to push out a longtime committee member and rig a leadership election.

The records, sought by state Rep. Travis Tranel (R-Cuba City) through an open records request, show the Governor’s Council on Tourism held subsequent elections for officers after the first online vote ended in a 6-6 tie between council members Kathy Kopp and Joe Klimczak.

Electronic timestamps show council voting in the first round took place between Oct, 18-21.

Another online vote occurred between Oct. 23-27, in which the election tallied 17 total votes. A final round of balloting occurred between Oct. 28-30, in which Klimczak picked up 10 votes to Kopp’s two.

The three rounds of voting were marred by confusion and controversy. Sources say only some members of the 19-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.

Tourism officials ultimately declared the votes were “inconclusive.” The election is now expected to be held at the council’s next meeting.

Between the first and final round of voting, Tourism Secretary-Designee Sara Meaney asked Kopp to resign her position on the council as early as December, according to Kopp and other tourism sources. Kopp, a widely respected tourism leader twice reappointed to the tourism council by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, plans to retire next year as director of the Platteville Area Chamber of Commerce, but her Tourism Council appointment doesn’t end until July 2021.

“As I indicated to you, I had not thought about resigning early, especially before my duties here at the Chamber are completed,” Kopp wrote in the email to Meaney, which she shared with some of her fellow council members.

State Sen. Andre Jacque (R- De Pere) — chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Local Government, Small Business, Tourism and Workforce Development — said the records from the online vote are troubling.

“This is just a mess,” said Jacque, an ex-officio member of the council. “After the nominations took place, we know there is this phone call from Secretary Meaney to Kathy Kopp with the intention of asking Kathy to step down.”

“In relation to when the request to Ms. Kopp occurred, the timing is conspicuous,” Jacque added.

Tranel, also a member of the council, said he has been “concerned about the situation that has developed over the past few weeks within the Department of Tourism.”

“At the next meeting, I look forward to having a thorough discussion of what transpired. Kathy Kopp is a fantastic member of the Council and she has my full support,” Tranel wrote in an email to Empower Wisconsin.

Tranel’s office asked multiple times for the documents. Finally the Department of Tourism delivered the records to the southwest Wisconsin lawmaker.

The entire process, which critics say was driven by liberal politics, was unprecedented from the beginning.

Meaney’s attempt to elect officers and members of the council’s marketing committee via an online vote appears to have been a violation of Wisconsin’s open meetings law.

In a letter to the secretary-designee, Jacque noted he is also concerned that unknown individuals voted multiple times, “and perhaps including individuals who are not supposed to be casting a ballot.”

“It appears that the council’s vote itself was not conducted at a meeting that was properly noticed and open to the public,” the senator wrote.

Sources tell Empower Wisconsin the Department of Tourism under Meaney’s predecessor, Stephanie Klett, used paper ballots, and each election was monitored by an official from the state Department of Administration.

A Department of Tourism official did not return Empower Wisconsin’s request for comment, but Meaney and Department of Administration Secretary Joel Brennan have insisted the secretary-designee is the victim of politics.

“There’s another political hit job on Sara Meaney,” Brennan told WTMJ radio on Friday. He claims the Tourism Department had done “things the wrong way” for the past 10 months because staff was following precedent set by “the previous administration.” Just what that was isn’t clear.

What is clear is that state statute doesn’t allow for online elections of committee officers, a precedent set by Meaney’s Department of Tourism.

Meaney also is under fire for “unprecedented” lobbying of individuals, business owners and tourism organizations around the state to support her confirmation in the Senate. Jacque said he has heard from some organization representatives who said they feared the repercussions of not supporting Meaney.

More broadly, Meaney has been accused of trying to politicize the Department of Tourism, pushing Evers liberal agenda inside the apolitical agency.

“The job of the Department of Tourism is to promote the State of Wisconsin, not to promote a political agenda — checking a racially-based box should not come before qualifications,” Jacque wrote in his letter to Meaney.

The secretary-designee’s confirmation, at the moment, appears to be in jeopardy.

“There’s a storm brewing on Sara Meaney,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) toldWTMJ. 

“There’s a couple of different stories floating out there … that has her in the position of trying to manipulate the tourism board,” Fitzgerald told the radio station.

At this point Meaney seems likely to follow Brad Pfaff, briefly the secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, into the pile of gubernatorial appointment rejects (though Pfaff landed another job with the state Department of Administration). For politicizing something that should not be politicized, and something that no previous Democratic or Republican governor politicized, Meaney needs to go.

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