High school and college journalists and young professional journalists are invited to a special investigative reporting workshop being offered March 30 as part of this year’s Wisconsin Watchdog Awards event. Admission is free.
Two citizens, two journalists, one fired government worker and one small but gutsy Wisconsin newspaper are among the recipients of the 2016-17 Openness Awards, or Opees, bestowed annually by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. The awards, announced in advance of national Sunshine Week (sunshineweek.org), March 12-18, recognize extraordinary achievement in the cause of open government.
For more than two centuries, governments in this country have paid newspapers to publish public notices about the actions of government. But now, Wisconsin state legislators are circulating a pair of bills, AB70 and SB42, that aim to take public notices out of newspapers and put them instead on government websites. It’s a bad idea that would harm transparency, democracy and public trust. Without a third-party, independent source providing the information, there is no accountability, no checks and balances to make sure that government is posting all the public notices it is required by law to post. Most Wisconsin residents continue to rely on the printed newspaper for information about their local elected governments, as they have for decades.
Register: Online registration for the 2017 Wisconsin Watchdog Awards reception and dinner
When: Thursday, March 30, 5 p.m. reception and 6 p.m. dinner
Where: The Madison Club, 5 E. Wilson St. Ticket price: $60. Proceeds benefit the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, participation of young journalists in the event and a special investigative reporting workshop. Gilman Halsted, a retired Wisconsin Public Radio reporter who produced award-winning examinations of the state’s criminal justice system, has been named the 2017 recipient of the Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award. Over the course of two decades, Halsted became a familiar voice to WPR listeners, working for six years in the Wausau bureau before moving to Madison in 2000.
Two days before the new president’s inauguration, the Society of Professional Journalists and dozens of other media and government transparency groups sent a letter asking Donald Trump for a meeting to discuss his administration’s relationship with the press. Among other things, the groups wanted Trump to affirm his commitment to the First Amendment, assure media access to his presidential activities, and allow expert government employees to talk to the media rather than muzzle them in favor of public relations officials. Trump has yet to respond. However, the new administration issued orders to employees of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture not to convey information to the media or public. Officials also imposed a news blackout at the Department of Transportation.
Nominations are being sought for the seventh annual Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award, recognizing an individual’s extraordinary contributions to open government or investigative journalism in Wisconsin.
On Sunday, August 14, after a night of unrest prompted by the fatal police shooting of a black man, Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn said his review of body camera video of the incident proved the officer had acted appropriately. “The individual did turn toward the officer with a firearm in his hand,” Flynn stated, later saying the man, 23-year-old Sylville Smith, “was raising up with” the gun. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said a still photo he was shown from the video “demonstrates, without question, that (Smith) had a gun in his hand.” In fact, Barrett declared, the officer “ordered that individual to drop his gun, the individual did not drop his gun.”
This purportedly exculpatory video itself was not promptly released, despite requests from Barrett and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker that this occur. It still has not been released. But we know now that public officials did not give an accurate account of what it shows.
Nine months after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned against flushing water systems before testing for lead, the state DNR had not passed that advice on to public water systems in Wisconsin. Our story examined that delay.
One of the most important court decisions in Wisconsin political history was argued largely in secret. The arguments were made in briefs that were heavily redacted or entirely shielded from public view. The evidence was hidden. Most of the litigants were anonymous.
Officer-involved killings test the relationships between police officers and the public they are sworn to protect and serve. The whole community has an interest in knowing whether the police have acted appropriately, or in an unprofessional or biased manner.
State Attorney General Brad Schimel has been a stand-up guy when it comes to open government issues in Wisconsin since he took over the Department of Justice in 2015. He created an office of open government, held a summit on government transparency, worked to improve records request response times within his own office, and took forceful issue with some of his fellow Republicans’ attempts to gut the state’s public records law last year. In April, he was given the Political Openness Award by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, which noted “how seriously he takes his statutory role to interpret and enforce the state’s openness laws.”