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Government too often fails to let sunshine in

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Mark Pitsch
March 13, 2012

It’s time once again for proponents of open government and the free flow of information to celebrate Sunshine Week. But this year, we’ll be doing it under a cloud.


The March 11-17 commemoration is sponsored by the American Society of News Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists and other groups. It occurs annually during the observation of the March 16 birthday of James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” and namesake of Wisconsin’s capital city.


Madison was a key proponent of individual liberty and rights, and a fierce advocate for open and transparent government. He believed that democracy works only when the public has access to information about how its government is run.


Unfortunately, Wisconsin has seen numerous recent examples of less-than-transparent government:


--We learned in January that top aides to Gov. Scott Walker, while he was Milwaukee County executive, created a top-secret email system. It would have been egregious enough had the system been used solely to communicate official county business, thereby bypassing potential public scrutiny.


But the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office has alleged that the system was also used to conduct illegal campaign work on behalf of Walker and Brett Davis, the Walker campaign’s favored candidate for lieutenant governor. Walker denies knowledge of the email network.


--Republican legislative leaders worked in secret to rewrite district boundaries; GOP legislators even signed pledges not to discuss the process publicly. It’s the right of GOP lawmakers to craft electoral maps as they see fit. After all, voters chose them to oversee the Legislature. But, as federal judges point out, redistricting should be subject to public review.


“What could have—indeed should have—been accomplished publicly instead took place in private, in an all but shameful attempt to hide the redistricting process from public scrutiny,” U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller, a Republican appointee, wrote last month on behalf of a three-judge panel ordering GOP leaders to release emails and other documents related to redistricting.


--Across the state, local government agencies are asking public records requesters to pay excessive fees to obtain public records. State law allows government bodies to charge requesters the “actual, necessary and direct” cost of copying records, and the cost of locating records when these exceed $50. But increasingly, agencies are asking requesters to pay for reviewing and redacting records.


According to attorney Bob Dreps, an expert in this area of the law, these new fees can run into the tens of thousands of dollars and even at lower amounts discourage requesters. This trend makes it nearly impossible for average citizens to obtain a substantial body of records, and very difficult for the media acting as the public’s representatives.


The state Supreme Court has agreed to accept a case brought by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel against the Milwaukee Police Department over excessive fees. Arguments are scheduled for April 17.


In light of these and other troubling developments, the Society of Professional Journalists encourages politicians, public agencies and government bodies across Wisconsin to honor Sunshine Week and to recommit themselves to the principles of open government.


We also encourage members of the public to hold their elected officials and government bureaucracies accountable for doing the public’s business openly.


Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Mark Pitsch, a council member, is an assistant city editor at the Wisconsin State Journal and president of the Madison professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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