Wisconsin’s largest newspaper and a small Madison paper produced mostly by teens are among the honorees of the 2019 Openness Awards, or Opees, bestowed annually by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, along with awards to a Wausau-based citizens environmental group and a state senator who is seeking to end his colleagues’ ability to destroy records at will.
Meanwhile, the Opees recognized both Racine Alderwoman Sandra Weidner and the city of Racine, for being on opposite sides of the same issue. Weidner was honored for blowing the whistle on her city’s extraordinary effort to suppress public records, for which it received negative recognition from the Council in the form of another award.
The awards, announced today in advance of national Sunshine Week (sunshineweek.org), March 10-16, are meant to recognize outstanding efforts to protect the state’s tradition of open government, and highlight some of the threats. This is the 13th consecutive year that Opees have been given.
“Each year, we recognize people who take it upon themselves to fight for the transparency our democracy needs to thrive,” said Bill Lueders, council president. “And each year, sadly, there are forces within government fighting just as hard to keep things secret.”
The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a nonpartisan group that seeks to promote open government, consists of about two dozen members representing media and other public interests. Sponsoring organizations include the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, Wisconsin Associated Press, Wisconsin News Photographers and the Madison Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Two Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism staff members — Dee J. Hall and Andy Hall — serve on the Council, as does Christa Westerberg, the Center’s legal counsel.
The winners will be invited to receive their awards at the ninth annual Wisconsin Watchdog Awards Dinner in Madison on Tuesday, April 16, at the Madison Club. The event is open to the public and is presented by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and the Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Awards are being given this year in six categories. The winners are:
Political Openness Award (“Popee”): Chris Larson
The Wisconsin Legislature, in its wisdom, decided to exempt itself from the records retention rules in place for all other state and local government officials. The exemption went largely unnoticed for decades, but in recent years some lawmakers have used it to destroy communications they would rather not see the light of day. State Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, has introduced legislation to end this abusive practice, which he has called “an invitation to corruption.”
Citizen Openness Award (“Copee”): Citizens for a Clean Wausau
This local environmental group, especially co-founder Tom Kilian, spent countless hours looking into soil contamination at the site of a former Wausau wood-waste plant, unearthing piles of records. This prompted the state Department of Natural Resources to open an investigation and ask the manufacturer’s parent company to submit a cleanup plan. According to Wausau Pilot & Review reporter Shereen Siewert, who covered the story, “the action taken by the DNR is a direct result” of the efforts by Kilian and others.
Media Openness Award (“Mopee”): Simpson Street Free Press
A Madison-based newspaper produced mainly by high school students, the Simpson Street Free Press pushed back hard against the claims made by a group affiliated with the Madison School District that the group was not subject to the state’s open records and meetings laws. The effort prompted one school board member to call for requiring any group that includes school district representatives to follow openness laws.
Open Records Scoop of the Year (“Scoopee”): “Lessons Lost,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel This multifaceted report examined the challenges presented by the surprisingly high number of students who transfer between schools. Reporter Erin Richards, with data analysis by Kevin Crowe, photos and video by Angela Peterson, and design and graphics by Erin Caughey and Andrew Mollica, produced an incisive and disturbing portrait of this largely unexplored problem affecting schools in Milwaukee and throughout the nation. The team used public information to create a massive database of nearly a decade of state student transfers, as well as to tell the stories of individual students.
Whistleblower of the Year (“Whoopee”): Sandra Weidner
Not only did this Racine alderperson file suit over her city’s efforts to claim that some of her own email exchanges with constituents could not be made public because they dealt with advice from the city attorney’s office, she was actually cited for contempt of court for disclosing information about her case, which a Racine County judge decided to conduct in secret. After media groups intervened, virtually all of the case records were made public. But Weidner has spent tens of thousands of dollars to prevent the public from being kept in the dark about its right to know.
No Friend of Openness (“Nopee”): The city of Racine
Officials including City Attorney Scott Letteney and Mayor Cory Mason, wasted more than $75,000 of taxpayers’ money on an unwise and ultimately failed effort to prevent the public from seeing run-of-the-mill emails and other records. Letteney’s office even at one point claimed it could not release records showing how much the city was spending on outside counsel for this foolish fight. The city trampled its citizens’ right to public information — and then made them foot the bill for it.