December: Walker has mixed record on openness

2011 Columns

Earlier this year, after Gov. Scott Walker was sued for the release of the thousands of emails he received at the height of the Capitol union protests, he posted a message on his web page:

“Please know that any communications may be subject to release under Wisconsin’s public records law and that our policy is generally to release communications sent to the email address below. We encourage you not to disclose private, confidential, or personally identifying information if you do not want that information released to the media or general public.”

It was an encouraging sign that the new governor is taking the state’s Open Records Law seriously.

And while it took a lawsuit from the Associated Press and Isthmus to compel him to release the emails, he eventually did allow an unvarnished review. Funny, it worked out in his favor. A sampling of the emails analyzed by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found that commenters supported his changes to public sector collective bargaining rules by a two to one margin, with a third of this support coming from outside the state.

On issues of government openness, Walker’s record has been mixed. Walker is not running the most open administration in history, as he pledged in an interview late last year, but he’s certainly not in a bunker.

Walker’s administration hasn’t always responded as quickly as the media might like to open records requests. But my newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal, requested the personnel records of the administration’s 160 political appointees, and the administration complied. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel promptly received records on controversial personnel decisions.

Walker was also a ubiquitous presence during the collective bargaining controversy, routinely doing one-on-one interviews and near-daily press conferences. It was good for the public, and smart politics.

And his administration has agreed that the quasi-public Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., the former state Commerce Department, must abide by state open records and meetings laws.

On the other hand, Walker has not been a champion of openness when it comes to restrictions on Capitol access, including seeking permits for protest gatherings of four or more people. Nor did he criticize the Legislature when it sidestepped the state’s Open Meetings Law in passing his collective bargaining bill.

Since the protests have died down, the governor has maintained a much lower media profile – at least in Madison. He’s less likely to hold news conferences for Capitol reporters and more likely to take his message to friendly national talk show hosts.

Like his predecessor, Jim Doyle, Walker has also kept a lid on his travels. Political travel and even some state business travel is not routinely disclosed.

Some tests of Walker’s commitment to open government loom on the horizon.

The Economic Development Corp. just announced a $4 million forgivable loan to Madison’s Spectrum Brands, the biggest handout from the corporation so far. The agency needs to turn over basic documents to let the public see how Spectrum has spent taxpayer money and how many jobs have been created.

Walker also needs to be more upfront about his whereabouts. Where is he? With whom is he meeting? Is he traveling for politics or on state business?

And it will be a good sign if the administration continues to respond promptly and fully to records requests, and the media isn’t compelled to go to court.

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