By Bill Lueders, WisFOIC President
I’d like to thank you all for coming. I should confess that I had very little to do with putting together this event. Primary credit for that goes to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative journalism, and especially Andy Hall. This was his idea, and I wisely insisted that he do most of the work.
My purpose tonight is to give a brief overview of the state of open government in Wisconsin. In short: The state of open government in Wisconsin is strong, even as we enter a period of exceptional delicacy and challenge.
Wisconsin’s traditions of open government run long and deep. We were the first state in the union to enact an open records law, back in 1849, just one year after becoming a state. In 1856 Walter Besley, the clerk of circuit court in Jefferson County, became Wisconsin’s first open government crusader. When the county board refused an appropriation to provide wood to furnish his office and candles to light and warm it, so the public could have access to records, Besley sued the county board, and won.
Since then, Wisconsin has benefited from many more such crusaders – people like Lynn Adelman, Bob Wills, and Dave Zweifel. Just as important have been the many government officials through the years who recognize their duty to conduct the public’s business in public, and regard transparency not as a burden but as a tool they can use to build trust with citizens.
Last month, for the fifth straight year, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council bestowed its Openness in Government Awards – the Opees – to seven individuals. Two awards – for political openness advocate of the Year, or Popee – went to former state Rep. Joe Parisi – now our Dane County executive – and former state Sen. Pat Kreitlow for their work in passing a Whistleblower Protection Act. Wisconsin became the 39th state to shield confidential media sources, and I am pleased to note that our statute is among the strongest in the land.
I’d also like to acknowledge the work on this bill by attorney Bob Dreps of Godfrey and Kahn. This is one of many occasions where Bob has lent his time and talent to issues addressed by the council; and it is all the more remarkable here because the passage of this bill will almost certainly mean that Bob will lose business, as the media outlets he represents can no longer be dragged into court and ordered to reveal sources.
I hope we can, on some future occasion, take fuller notice of Bob Dreps’ contributions to our cause. For now, I would ask that he stand so we can give him a hand.
Fortunately, there are not many occasions in which a Whistleblower Protection Law is needed. But they do occur. This year the Council created a new award – Whistleblower of the Year, the “Whoopee” – to honor an individual who to this day must remain anonymous. Known simply as “Concerned Citizen,” she is the person who came to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel with information about fraud in a state childcare program. The subsequent reporting by Raquel Rutledge won several major prizes last year, including a Pulitzer, which is pretty much becoming an annual honor, and saved the state millions of dollars. I’d like to invite Raquel to say a few words.
The Council also gave a Copee Award, for Citizen Advocate of the Year, to Don Bubolz, a resident of Vesper, Wisconsin, whose curiosity about the emails of public school teachers sparked a major court battle. Last July the state Supreme Court rendered a disappointing decision that created a burdensome and costly new review process. But the court also affirmed that certain kinds of email communications must be disclosed. We thank Mr. Bubolz for asserting his right to have his curiosity satisfied.
The Opee for Open Records Scoop of the Year – the Scoopie – went to Christine Won of the Racine Journal Times, for her reporting on improper payments from the Caledonia chief of police to an officer’s family and friends. The officer was suspended and the police chief abruptly retired; it was yet another example of how public records and dogged reporting can serve as a check on official misconduct.
We also honored Ryan Foley of the Associated Press as our media Openness Advocate of the Year – the Mopee – for his prolific use of public records to break major stories, including his jaw-dropping articles on Calumet County District Attorney Ken Kratz. Ryan subsequently accepted a promotion to work with the AP in Iowa, but it is our good fortune that he’s here tonight. Ryan does not wish to speak, but there’s something that we need to say to him.
As Wisconsin enters a volatile and uncertain era, we face challenges on multiple fronts. Because of loose language in some court decisions, some records requesters are now being charged for the time it takes custodians to review records, deciding what to black out. This is part of a larger trend toward answering requests for records with demands for large sums, in order to make requesters go away.
This last year also saw renewed and ever-more serious efforts to curtail public access to online court records, both in a petition to the state Supreme Court and in the work of a Legislative Council committee. At the heart of this issue is an argument over whether the people of Wisconsin can be trusted to make responsible use of public information, as the Council maintains, or whether, as others insist, they are simply too stupid and mean to avoid engaging in abuse. I have found this a surprisingly difficult argument to win.
I do not wish to dwell on the negative. Overall, the state of open government in Wisconsin is strong. In terms of the future, however, there are two issues I think the Freedom of Information Council and other advocates for open government should keep in mind.
The first issue: It is critical for us to acknowledge and applaud the majority of public officials in Wisconsin who share our commitment to openness. Yes, there are times when we have to fight for access. But in the main we should be giving thanks for the access we are routinely afforded, from public officials who obey the spirit and letter of the law.
As many of you know, last month my paper joined with the Associated Press in suing Gov. Scott Walker over access to emails received by his office. We prevailed in that action, unequivocally. But I would like it known that Gov. Walker’s office and the state negotiated in good faith to reach a workable solution, and in the end released the emails unconditionally, to a range of requesters. It was a commendable decision, and I commend him for it. I look forward to future occasions when we can praise the governor for following though on his stated commitment to transparency.
Which brings me to the second issue: In these hyper-partisan times, it is more important than ever that the Freedom of Information Council remain resolutely nonpartisan. Transparency in government is not and has never been a partisan issue. The open records and open meeting laws are used and supported by members of both major parties. I’m pretty sure even the Greens are on our side.
Make no mistake: What we have seen from some quarters in recent weeks is nothing less than unvarnished contempt for the state’s traditions of open government. The Legislature has thumbed its nose at the state’s Open Meetings Law and at critical moments turned our Capitol in a fortress designed to keep democracy out. Those who have gathered to chant the word “Shame!” are exactly right.
But this heedlessness is driven by individuals and not ideologies. No one party or political persuasion is against the state’s great traditions of openness. On the Wisconsin Supreme Court, judicial conservatives have repeatedly sided with the cause of openness, including in the case involving public employee emails. Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has taken strong if not entirely consistent stands in favor of the public’s right to know.
In recent weeks I have spoken in support of the Assembly Republicans who wanted to use the Open Records Law to obtain databases of constituent contacts from defeated Democrats. And I’ve defended the request by the Republican Party of Wisconsin to see the emails of a UW-Madison professor who took a public stand against Gov. Walker’s agenda.
In both cases, though there are competing interests that must be weighed, I believe these requests were valid and appropriate, and the presumption of openness applies. Yes they may have been driven by base motives, but the statute does not allow a requester’s motives to be taken into account. The beauty of Wisconsin’s openness laws is that they apply to everyone – not just the media, not just people acting with laudable intent.
So let us approach the future in that spirit, celebrating the watchdogs among us, even those who howl at the moon for no apparent reason. It’s good to know that they’re out there, each and every one.
And now I’d like to invite my friend, John Nichols, to say a few words about tonight’s main honoree.