As part of national Sunshine Week, March 16-22, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is bestowing its second annual Opee Awards in recognition of people and institutions which have had an impact on open government in Wisconsin during the last year.
The honorees are:
Political Openness Advocate of the Year (the “Popee”): Wisconsin Supreme Court. In years past, Wisconsin’s high court might have qualified for a Dopee (“Dumbest Open Government Decision”) or even a Nopee (“No Friend of Openness”). But this year it merits positive mention for a pair of especially good rulings that expanded the public’s right to know. In Buswell v. Tomah Area School District, the court said government meeting notices must contain reasonably detailed information about the subjects up for discussion, especially when there’s evident public interest. And in Zellner v. Cedarburg School District, it rejected a teacher’s novel efforts to block the release of records related to his termination for viewing pornography on school computers. Way to go, Supremes! Keep it up!
Citizen Openness Advocates of the Year (the “Copee”): Tie: Brian Buswell and (Milton) Citizens for Responsible Development. Buswell, a building contractor, fought his claim that the Tomah schools’ vague meeting notice violated the open meetings law all the way to the state Supreme Court, and won. Credit also goes to his attorney brother, Jack Buswell, who litigated the case. Citizens for Responsible Development, meanwhile, won a precedent-setting appellate case holding that the Milton city council and plan commission violated the open meetings law when they repeatedly met in closed session to hammer out a deal with an ethanol plant. Like Buswell, the group received reimbursement for most of its legal costs – and now this award.
Media Openness Advocate of the Year (the “Mopee”): The Portage Daily Register. This small daily paper courageously challenged a denial of its 2006 request for information related to some possibly illegal flyers in a sheriff’s race. The sheriff’s office claimed the record was exempt, because it had been forwarded to the district attorney’s office as part of an open investigation. This reasoning was ultimately rejected by a state appeals court, plugging what could have been a dangerous loophole in the law.
Open Records Scoop of the Year (the “Scoopee”): Ben Jones, Appleton Post-Crescent. A dirty little secret about the state’s open records law is that sometimes it’s fun to see what you can find out. Earlier this year, this enterprising reporter obtained a list of 8,000 vanity license plates that the state Department of Transportation won’t allow. Some are tasteless (“KSMYBT,” “MOONME,” “IMNUDE”) some offensive for other reasons (“DTHRIDE,” “ROADRGE,” “STONED”). More questionable is the state’s decision to ban such social and political messages as “GAYPWR” and “IH8DOYL.” But, as Jones noted, we still have bumper stickers.
Don Quixote Tilting at Windmills Award (the “Quixopee”): Reps. Cory Mason and Dean Kaufert. This freshman Democrat from Racine and veteran Republican from Neenah last spring introduced a bill to open legislative caucus sessions held by political parties to the public. It’s an idea that has about as much chance of passing the Legislature as Miss Teen South Carolina does of acing the SATs. But it would be great public policy. Tilt away!
No Friend of Openness Award (the “Nopee”): Rep. Marlin Schneider. The Democratic state rep from Wisconsin Rapids probably qualifies for a lifetime achievement award in this category, for his efforts to shut off public access to information. Most notable this year was his bill to severely restrict who could have access to the state’s online database of circuit court records. Other lawmakers have since followed in his footsteps to propose chipping away at this access, bit by bit. Schneider is a sincere and devoted privacy advocate, and it may surprise some that the Freedom of Information Council supports his proposal to require that employers and landlords who make use of such databases disclose this to applicants. More information – and vigilant enforcement of existing anti-bias laws – is the way to go.
Dumbest Open Government Ruling (the “Dopee”): No winner this year. Now that’s progress.
Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Lueders is the group’s president.