Time and again, transparency advocates have seen that protecting Wisconsin’s traditions of open government depends on the courage and initiative of individuals. This year’s winners of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council ’s Openness Awards, or Opees, include two citizens, two journalists, one fired government worker and one small but gutsy Wisconsin newspaper.
The council is giving awards to eight recipients in six categories. The winners are:
Citizen Openness Award (“Copee”): This category was a tie. John Krueger, an Appleton parent, won for suing the Appleton Area School District for not letting him attend meetings of a committee formed in response to his concerns, a case now pending before the state Supreme Court. So did Lance Fena, who insisted on his right to make a video recording at a Milton School Board meeting, as the law allows; the board not only backed down , it subsequently began live-streaming its proceedings.
Media Openness Award (“Mopee”): The winner is the New Richmond News, a small newspaper in St. Croix County which after three years won its case challenging wholesale records redactions by law enforcement agencies all around the state. The resulting decision, rendered by a state appeals court in May, brought a measure of clarity to what had been chaos.
Political Openness Award (“Popee”): Winner Cory Mason, a Democratic lawmaker from Racine, continues to push to end the ability of legislative party caucuses to meet in secret. Mason, in the past, has also broken ranks with some members of his party to make the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association subject to state openness laws, and opposed efforts to reduce transparency of campaign donors and gut the open records law through the state budget.
Open Records Scoop of the Year: In a banner year for reporting that drew on public records, the council picked two major projects involving threats to vulnerable populations. Katelyn Ferral, of The Capital Times, exposed the dismal conditions at a state veterans facility in King, Wisconsin, which drew state and federal attention. And Patrick Marley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, joined by other reporters, documented shocking abuses at two state juvenile prisons, prompting increased oversight and federal investigations.
Whistleblower of the Year (“Whoopee”): Longtime federal employee Ronald Klym blew the whistle on what the news outlet Watchdog.org called “incompetence, misconduct and long case delays” at a Milwaukee disability office. He was allegedly subjected to increased workload and other harassment before being fired in August. “I am being punished because I am a whistleblower,” Klym said at the time. Now he’s being honored for it.
No Friend of Openness (“Nopee”): This unwelcome award goes to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in June catalogued an array of DOC denials and delays, including those concerning the state’s troubled juvenile prisons. In September, the agency proceeded with a plan to immediately destroy training videos after earlier spiking plans to do so. And DOC Secretary Ed Wall was fired for writing to another state official at home with the express goal of avoiding the open records law.
The awards will be presented March 30 at the annual Wisconsin Watchdog Awards Dinner in Madison.
Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Bill Lueders is the group’s president.