September: Ask candidates for office about open government issues

2008 Columns

Openness in government is critical to democracy. Wisconsin state law makes that clear in this high-minded preamble to the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law:

“In recognition of the fact that a representative government of the American type is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state that the public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government as it compatible with the conduct of governmental business.”

How are we doing in real life? Not always so good.

That’s why it’s important, in an election year, to ask the candidates questions that help reveal their commitment to openness in government.

Here are some examples.

At the federal level, a group called OMB Watch has put together questions to address secrecy in the executive branch of the federal government, which would make good questions for candidates for House or Senate. Among them:

— Do you favor disclosure of communications between the White House and agencies regarding administrative decision-making and information disclosure?

— What are the appropriate limits of executive privilege in the disclosure of information?

— Federal law protects only corporate whistleblowers who reveal financial abuses. Should the law be expanded to protect the rights of private-sector workers who report violations of public health and safety laws?

— How can we ensure public access to health and safety information?

At the state and local levels, government still throws up many obstacles. Problems include overcharging for records, delays in responding to open records requests, problems getting police and prosecution information. Legislators provide information about bill drafts to some interest groups while withholding information to other groups or members of the public and they are trying to limit access to court records online.

Meanwhile, local officials abuse laws allowing closed meetings, particularly when discussing economic development. Ask your local representatives about policies are regarding closed meetings for economic development.

While the Open Meetings Law provides exemptions for meetings “whenever competitive or bargaining reasons require a closed session,” a recent court case said that exemption should be narrowly applied.

In short, local governments may not use the exemption to keep from the public the fact that it is negotiating with a private company to provide local taxpayer subsidies.

In a recent case involving an ethanol plant in Milton, the city council negotiated with an ethanol company for about a year without letting local citizens know it was even considering an ethanol plant.

Robert Dreps, a Madison lawyer who specializes in freedom on information cases, said, “Milton provides more concrete advice on whether they can close the meeting. Every exemption has to be narrowly construed.”

Ask your local officials how they would handle such negotiations.

Dreps said he most commonly gets local media questions about attempts to conceal personnel or law enforcement issues. While there are reasons for privacy in personnel issues, there also is a public accountability for local governments whose employees are abusing the public trust.

Consider asking candidates how they will ensure that their constituents get the information they need to be responsible citizens. In short, remind them of the high-minded intent enshrined in Wisconsin law – and insist that they adhere to it.