March: Open those cookies, and more

2014 Columns

As part of national Sunshine Week (, March 16-22, members of the Madison student and professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists fanned out across the capital city, handing out fortune cookies.

We dropped a handful in the offices of the elected officials, from Madison School Board to Gov. Scott Walker, as well as some unelected boards like the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents.

Each cookie contained a wise and honorable message: “You will be open and transparent when conducting public business.” “You will uphold the letter and the spirit of the Wisconsin open records and open meetings laws.” “A year of good fortune showers those who revere open government.”

The fortune cookies and their messages serve as a reminder to those elected or appointed to do the public’s business that they work for you – the voting and taxpaying public. Here are some examples from over the past year that illustrate why these Sunshine Week reminders, no matter how gimmicky, are needed:

* We now know how brazenly Walker’s Milwaukee County executive office was in seeking to hide its business from the public, to the point of setting up a secret email system. Investigators suspect, and common sense suggests, Walker knew about the secret system, and the overt commingling of his public and campaign staff. No one begrudges politicians from considering political calculations when making decisions, but we expect them to stay on the right side of the law.

* Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen have argued Vukmir and all lawmakers are exempt from the records law for their entire terms in office – an unprecedented legal position that would let lawmakers ignore the law. Meanwhile, Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, is fighting a legal battle to shield the names of constituents who contact him – an approach adopted by some of his legislative colleagues but rejected by other elected officials, including Walker.

* In the waning days of the legislative session, lawmakers are considering a bill to eliminate numerous records from the state online court database. This website simply includes information that is already public record in courthouses across the state; putting it online and making it available to the public only makes sense.

* State lawmakers snuck numerous last-minute measures into the 2013-15 state budget, including ones to create a bail bonds system and expel an investigative journalism center from the UW-Madison. Credit Walker for vetoing them.

* The same budget writers used obscure language to direct funding to a politically connected sportsmen’s group that had publicly obscured its tax status and whose leader had run afoul of hunting law. Literally, this was the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

* Twice, UW officials pushed language seeking to create blanket exemptions for university research. You’d think after one embarassing beat down they would have learned their lesson. Both measures were stopped in their tracks.

* The university and the UW System also failed to adhere to legal guidance from the Attorney General’s office to reveal the names of five finalists for their top jobs in a timely manner. The System did not release the names of all finalists until after it had chosen a president.

* Finally, municipalities across the state are shielding information on traffic tickets out of fear that they will be sued, under a highly questionable interpretation of a federal court ruling. Curiously, no other state is taking this approach.

Let’s hope the people who received our fortune cookies take them not only to stomach but heart.

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