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The Lakeland Times | Minocqua, Wisc.

Jim Tait 02/01-02/28/17

home : opinions : opinions August 21, 2017

3/17/2017 7:26:00 AM
Sunshine Week: The Lakeland Times' 2017 open records grades (Incomplete)

In honor of Sunshine Week - a celebration and advocacy of open government - The Lakeland Times presents the newspaper's 2017 awards and grades for openness in conducting public business.

The following grades are calculated using several measures, including how responsive officials have been this past year to open records' requests, how diligently they have strived to keep the workings of government open, how willing they were to communicate with the media and with the public, as well as their past track record.

The rating scale:

A - Excellent. Passionately committed to open government and accountability. The public is lucky to have these officials. They have full knowledge of the open records' and open meetings' laws.

B - Good. These records' custodians do an above-average job. They may need more knowledge and education about the law but are committed in principle to openness and side more often than not with open-records' advocates.

C - Average. These custodians need more immediate education about open government laws. They tend to respond slowly to records' requests, and they are as likely to withhold information as to release it. Still, these officials have never landed in court over an open records' dispute.

D - Below Average. These custodians do not believe in open government or in the release of open records. They usually land on the side of secrecy. These officials are suspicious of the public. They have very little knowledge of the open records' and open meetings' laws, and have even less interest in learning about them.

F - Failure. These people should be removed as records' custodians. They cannot be trusted by the public and couldn't spell FREEDOM if you spotted them F-R-E-E-_-O-M.

I - Incomplete. While it is too early to rate an overall performance in their current positions, we will record any recent actions and use their track records to calculate a "trending" rank.

This year, the newspaper is again listing failing grades first and the grades of excellent open-records' advocates last. We do so not because we want to downplay the passion and ethics of those who understand and defend open government but to draw attention to the rapidly increasing ranks of the many attacking it.

Consider them wanted posters in the post office of public records. And now, this year's grades:

I - Incomplete

Incomplete: Vilas County district attorney Martha Milanowski. As we've mentioned here and in past articles, Martha Milanowski, who took over district attorney duties from the retired Al Moustakis in November, has some real background in open meetings/open records laws.

It's a specialty of hers and as the corporation counsel for the Vilas County board for the past many years, she attended many of the regular county board meetings to provide guidance on a number of things, including the county board's standing rules.

When there would be changes in the county board after an election, Milanowski, in her role as corporation counsel, would make a presentation to the county board, usually within the first couple meetings with new members, on basic open meetings/open records material.

And she'd always make it clear if they had any questions, to make sure they contact her because that's why she was there.

Because of the transition Milanowski is making to county attorney - and only because of that transition - we're going to score her "incomplete" on this year's Sunshine grades.

We have no doubt, however, based on past dealings with her as Vilas County's corporation counsel, she'll come through as she always has when called.

Incomplete: President Donald Trump. The media and open-government organizations have started to howl about the existential threat President Donald Trump poses to open government, in particular early efforts by the administration to remove certain data sets - including those related to climate change and animal cruelty - from administration websites.

The truth is, the Trump administration is way too young to judge at this point, and, in any event, the media and those same organizations never called out Barack Obama over extreme moves to shut down openness in government. In fact, they gave him an award for transparency at the very time he was trying to use the Espionage Act to prosecute government whistleblowers, a first for any president.

So far, the removal of data sets - and the administration has backed away from actually removing those datasets - tell us nothing about transparency per se. For years, the Obama administration's websites were filled with ideologically loaded and biased data sets and studies that skewed the truth about scientific assessments and inhibited true debate on unsettled questions.

For those who believe the bias, for those who succumb to the liberal myth of settled science, any attempt to restore balance to scientific debates is seen "as trying to shut down transparency." But if - and it still is an 'if' - if the president is trying to promote the balanced presentation of science on critical issues, then he is increasing transparency.

There are indeed troubling aspects about Trump's open government positions. His threat during the campaign to try to make it easier to sue reporters for libel - a position he also backed away from - was absurd, and his EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, needs to be watched, given his own conviction by a county court for violating Oklahoma's open records laws as the state's attorney general.

But it's too soon to make a judgment. What we do know is that Trump and his team need to be watched closely on open-government affairs, but so do the ideologues who often try to use open-government matters not as tools to find the truth but as weapons to pursue partisan agendas.

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