By David Gordon, associate editor
Strong bi-partisan support for transparency and open government was on display Tuesday night on the UW-Eau Claire campus, mixed with sporadic but clear political and ideological differences on topics ranging from anonymous political speech to Gov. Scott Walker.
It was all part of a “Sunshine Week” three-day tour of eight Wisconsin cities intended to inform the public about the state’s open records and open meetings laws, and to mobilize citizen resistance to any future threats to the laws. The tour, hosted by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (FoIC), follows unprecedented efforts last year by state lawmakers and others to weaken or do away with the open records law.
Representatives of groups on both sides of the ideological spectrum are participating in the tour as supporters of openness in government, along with organizations such as the state FoIC whose interest is on governmental transparency rather than ideology.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin FoIC, praised Walker’s executive order last week that strengthened some aspects of the open records law. Matthew Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and former editor and publisher of The Progressive magazine, countered that Walker was untrustworthy and charged that “there’s a clique (of Republicans) at the top that’s trying to destroy democracy in Wisconsin.”
Rothschild viewed attacks on the two laws as one step in that direction. Lueders responded by noting that although he has clashed with Walker and Atty. Gen. Brad Schimel on many issues, both deserved credit when they support access to government actions.
“I don’t think we can look at this issue in a partisan way,” Lueders said. “Open government benefits everyone. It doesn’t benefit (just) Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives.”
Thomas Kamenick, deputy counsel and litigation manager for the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), said that government secrecy is a sin of both political parties. He said he helps citizens, on a pro bono basis, obtain records when they are stymied by government agencies. WILL also helps to make sure that agencies are keeping the records required by law.
“It can be a bigger story” when required records aren’t kept, he said.
Several panelists noted with approval the bipartisan outcry from organizations and citizens last summer when Republican leaders in the Legislature tried to slip into the state budget a provision that would have gutted the open records law. But they also expressed fears that there will be further attacks on the open records and meetings laws, and urged the 25 or so members of the public attending the 90-minute presentation to be vigilant and help to protect those provisions.
April Barker, a lawyer with the Brookfield firm of Schott, Bublitz and Engel, provided a tutorial session on the two statutes and how to make use of them. She said that the preamble to the open records law is an eloquent statement on transparency in government and is one of the strongest policy statements among such laws nationally.
She added that it also is among the strongest policy statements anywhere in the Wisconsin statutes, with its declaration that the “law shall be construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access” which can be denied only “in exceptional cases.” To deny access, there must be an “overriding” benefit to the public in keeping records secret, she said.
Barker also noted that a person making a request under the open records law is not required to provide either their name or a reason for the request.
A brief exchange – in regard to current political attack ads – centered on whether anonymous political speech should be fully protected or whether people should be required to identify themselves when expressing opinions. Kamenick commented that there was considerable anonymous publication on political matters leading up to the American Revolution and suggested that King George III would have been delighted to know the authors of that material.
Other groups involved in the program were the Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the MacIver Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think-tank.
“Sunshine Week” is an annual national celebration of access to public information sponsored by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Local sponsors for the Eau Claire stop on the state tour were the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram and the UW-EC Communication and Journalism department.
Other cities on the tour are La Crosse, Wausau, Green Bay, Appleton, Sheboygan, Waukesha and Janesville.
Note: many online resources provide explanations of Wisconsin’s open meetings and records laws and guidance on how to use them. One starting point is the “Open Government Guide” at http://www.rcfp.org/rcfp/orders/docs/ogg/WI.pdf. A full list of resources is available on the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council website, at http://www.wisfoic.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=363&Itemid=108.