Perhaps no other political issue receives so little attention, relative to its importance, as open government. Elections come and go without candidates addressing this fundamental tenet of a democratic society. That’s because virtually all candidates, when asked, will say they are big fans of transparency. It’s an easy position to take, a harder one to live up to. But in Wisconsin’s fall elections, fidelity to open government has come up in several races, for governor, attorney general and U.S. Senate.
Congratulations to Nicole Ki and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism for the excellent story on the decline of democracy in Wisconsin. The essence of the decline can be traced to Scott Walker’s use of “divide and conquer” style of governance.
This column is a companion to our story revealing that the length of time bills were deliberated dropped significantly soon after Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators took control in 2011. In this piece Center managing editor Dee J. Hall explains the origins and methodology of the analysis.
The following statement was written by Sue Cross, CEO and executive director of the Institute for Nonprofit News, in response to a call last week from The Boston Globe, to remind readers of the value of America’s free press. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is a founding member of INN, a network of more than 170 independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit news organizations dedicated to strengthening the sources of trusted news for thousands of communities.
When the Oconto Police and Fire Commission said in April that it had interviewed two finalists for the open position of chief of police, Kent Tempus of the Oconto County Reporter asked who the finalists were.
It was a simple request, made under the part of Wisconsin’s open records law that requires the naming of final candidates for public offices.
The answer should have been simple, too — but it wasn’t.
In response to the Center’s Jan. 21, 2018 report on independent medical examiners, the owner of a Waukesha IME company says doctors offering second opinions in worker’s comp cases can help prevent fraud — and unnecessary medical treatment.
A few weeks back, while looking into a court case in Waukesha County, I went to the court’s website seeking contact information. There were a few phone numbers but no email addresses. So I called one of the numbers and asked for the judge’s email address.
One great thing about Wisconsin’s open records law is that it’s not supposed to matter who wants records or why. The law, enacted in 1983, asserts that no state or local government office may deny a request because the person making it “is unwilling to be identified or to state the purpose of the request.”
This is an important principle, because access to public information should not be limited to people whose motives have been deemed pure. In fact, citizens and political parties often use the law to scrutinize public officials and political opponents. That’s how it should be. A few years back, the primary author of Wisconsin’s open records law, former state Sen. Lynn Adelman, now a federal judge, told a group of open government advocates that he was prepared to kill the entire bill rather than accept an amendment that would have removed this ability to make anonymous requests.
When the University of Wisconsin-Madison and UW-Milwaukee released records about sexual misconduct complaints to news organizations last month, they heavily redacted the documents and refused to identify numerous employees who were found to have committed wrongdoing.
Wisconsin’s open government laws were meant to strengthen our democracy by ensuring an informed electorate. But, sometimes, transparency is about more than democracy—it is about human health, with serious consequences when transparency fails. Earlier this year, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the city of Milwaukee had failed to alert thousands of families whose children had blood tests indicating elevated lead levels. Lead from water pipes and old paint is a significant public health risk in Milwaukee and elsewhere, causing cognitive damage and other problems.
It later emerged that officials in Milwaukee had imposed a gag order on health department employees. It barred them from having contacts with elected officials without prior approval.
In my career as a journalist, I have encountered many public officials who respect government openness and transparency. There was the state records custodian who turned over dozens of her boss’s embarrassing emails after telling him that keeping them secret would violate the law. And the university staffers who pointed me to public information the school tried to keep out of the public eye. And the local elected official who told me what happened in a closed session she thought may have been illegally closed. As we approach this year’s annual celebration of Sunshine Week, March 11-17, it’s worth recalling times when people entrusted with our tax dollars have stood up for our right to know.
Computers have made examining government records easier than ever. The smallest townships across Wisconsin post the meeting agendas and minutes online. And websites for government agencies at all levels contain an enormous amount of other information. Electronic records are also available on request. Say you want to see a skate-park-feasibility study you’ve heard about.