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April 22, 2018

3/16/2018 7:29:00 AM
The dark days of open government

The leaders of two of Wisconsin's most well-known leftie groups were scratching and shaking their heads this past week with the news that the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council had awarded Gov. Scott Walker its 2018 Political Openness Award.

We were a little shocked ourselves.

In explaining the award, the FOIC pointed to Walker's moves these past two years to direct state agencies to become more open and transparent, specifically by mandating the posting of certain information online, including meeting notices and minutes.

Well, it is a little weak, and, as Matt Rothschild, the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, and Scot Ross, the executive director of One Wisconsin Now, pointed out in a joint column, Walker has generally been a hostile force to transparency for much of his tenure as governor.

"As Governor, Scott Walker has undermined openness and transparency in state government and shown disregard for both the spirit and the letter of the state open records law," Rothschild and Ross wrote. "For that he deserves jeers, not cheers, from the state Freedom of Information Council."

They have a point. Last year we gave Walker an F-minus in our open government grades for the same reason.

Here's what we wrote: "Last year Gov. Scott Walker roared to the worst possible grade any official can receive, on the strength of his and the Republican Legislature's attempt to eviscerate the open-records law. ... The governor did not merely try to evade the law - which he had done by trying to withhold 'deliberative' documents - he did not just seek to weaken the law. The governor and his comrades sought to destroy it, to effectively repeal it."

In 2017, he was up to no good again, we wrote, as he sought to allow all governmental units with printing, publishing, and mailing requirements the option to make most materials available electronically on government websites - which are ghost towns average citizens never visit - without publishing them in newspapers.

On the other hand, the FOIC may have something of a point, and we also upgraded the governor this year using the same logic, if we did not quite extend to him hero status the way the FOIC did. Directing state agencies to be more open may not be much, but, in the overall scheme of things, it's something.

To say it another way, it is a bleak and dreary open government landscape in which we grade. Most public officials these days - left and right, elected and bureaucratic, judicial, executive and legislative - disdain transparency.

And they disdain it proudly.

Attorney general Brad Schimel went to the Supreme Court to block release of law enforcement training videos - you would think the public would have an interest in just what tactics our officers are using against the public - and this newspaper has sued the Department of Justice because they refuse to release the names of some disciplined law enforcement personnel.

Hiding the identity of wrongdoers allows them to escape accountability, to move to other jobs with their wrongdoing effectively swept under the rug, and - because the agency chose to release some names and withhold others - it often singles out some for special cloaking privileges while others are branded publicly.

Despite his own words to the contrary, Schimel is actually dismantling an agency that was strong on transparency under his predecessor.

Then there are the courts. The state Supreme Court is going even further than Schimel and, in a defiant show of activism, is rewriting the open records laws from the bench. They have now on two occasions deemed it proper to consider a requester's personal reasons for wanting a record when deciding whether to release records.

That violates state statute and it violates core principles of an open government: Either a record is not public or it is, and, if it is, it should be immediately available to every citizen, regardless of reason.

But the justices see it differently. They want the government to know what you are up to when you request a record, and then decide if they want to let you have the record.

So much for a conservative court.

And, as we report today, the director of state courts has been busy with an oversight committee making wholesale changes to information displayed on the state's circuit court online database, known as CCAP.

To be fair, there were journalists on this committee and some of the changes might not be so bad, but this is serious public policy that should have been decided through public hearings and legislative effort, and implemented by elected officials, not by the hand of a court bureaucrat.

And, speaking of the Legislature, it continues to be the foulest body in the land when it comes to open government.

Lawmakers continue to refuse to place themselves under the open-records retention law - a statute they have conveniently exempted themselves from that also effectively exempts them from the open records law because they can dispose of public documents whenever they want.

So if you want to see a lawmaker's records, better hope they haven't carried out the trash yet.

And now the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty has had to take a lawmaker, and really the whole Assembly, to court because of an Assembly policy that requires

lawmakers to issue requested records in paper rather than electronic format, which of course eats up time, is expensive to taxpayers, and which deters requesters from making requests.

That latter fact is the real reason behind the policy - to do everything possible to throw obstacles in the way of those seeking public information about their government.

Another part of our growing landscape of concern is the clout of such organizations as the Wisconsin Towns Association, the Wisconsin Counties Association, and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

While these are not formal government entities, they feed off tax dollars, and they are busy using their resources to lobby for legislation beneficial to their members. Part of that agenda over the past several years has been their efforts to end the state's requirements to publish legal notices in newspapers - something clearly not in the best interests of open government.

What these organizations accomplish by their very existence is to transform independent elected officials who should be representing voters and taxpayers into members of a special interest club that in turn lobbies for the vested interests of the government structures they are a part of.

They are the gateways to the good-old-boys-and-girls clubs of government.

The darkened landscape increasingly includes town governments, which brazenly thumb their noses at open meetings and open records laws and think they are too small to be noticed or that nobody will care enough to do anything about it.

That's apparently the case in Boulder Junction. Last November, Boulder Junction town chairman Dennis Reuss, supervisor Denny McGann, and then supervisor Dennis Duke were found guilty of violating the open-meetings law in September of 2016, and the court nullified a vote taken in that illegal session to pay clerk-treasurer Kendra Moraczewski $8,700 in compensation she did not deserve.

We are about four months down the road from that conviction and the money has yet to be repaid, to our knowledge. Does the town board intend to recover the illegally expended funds? Will they get way with it if they do not intend to?

Time will tell but it is indicative of the lousy state of open government in Wisconsin these days. Some town officials and governments remain role models of transparency, but the number dwindles by the year.

So perhaps the FOIC's decision to give Gov. Walker the political openness award of 2018 was justified, given the overall bleak state of transparency. The only other rational decision would probably have been to just not give an award at all. When that day arrives, though, the sunshine will be gone forever.

Reader Comments

Posted: Monday, March 26, 2018
Article comment by: Nare Peterman

I don't really identify with either major political party, because they are both crooked and full of slimy politicians. It's pathetic that Walker and Moore feel that being partisan is necessary in most if not all of their editorials. It's hard to fathom there still people who can't see through it, but it must be somewhat effective given how often it's done and the continued publication of the syndicated content of the same stripe from Creators dot com. Heck, Moore even wrote a book using the same partisanship.

As good as any editorial might have the potential to be, pathetic Walker and Moore have to lower the quality by spitting on their boogeyman.

Posted: Friday, March 16, 2018
Article comment by: James Stroschein

I agree with your assessment regarding the onslaught against transparency in government but the tone of your opening paragraph is unnecessary. Why open a serious piece with such sophomoric labeling as "leftie groups?" This flies in the face of the tone of the rest of the piece. It's almost as if the writer submitted the article and the editor decided he needed to juice-up the opening so he wrote that odd lead-in. It diminishes the overall message. I do hope that you keep the heat on those in public office who try to restrict the public's right to know.

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