February: Local officials expand power to keep secrets

2006 Columns

Government officials have always wanted to shoot the messenger.  Now they’re taking aim at “leakers.”

Elected leaders in La Crosse and Brookfield have passed ordinances to punish city workers or officials who reveal information from closed meetings. City council members want to use the local laws to decide – subjectively and after the fact – what information should be kept secret from the public.

At least one lawmaker, Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, sees the obvious harm in such laws and wants them overturned. However, the trend seems likely to spread to other Wisconsin communities before Nass can draft a bill and persuade his colleagues to support it.

“Anti-leak” ordinances turn Wisconsin’s tradition of open government on its head. They create a presumption, through coercion, that government business is closed to public scrutiny unless someone in power decides it’s okay to release information.

Such ordinances are at odds with Wisconsin’s Open Meetings and Open Records laws, which allow public officials and record keepers to close a meeting or withhold a record only under very limited and specific circumstances. Exceptions are sensibly allowed only when meetings involve certain types of negotiations, legal strategies or personnel matters.

The La Crosse ordinance covers information that might qualify for consideration at a closed meeting. But it also creates a loophole big enough for an army of lawyers to exploit by letting officials vastly expand the definition of “confidential” information.

As a result, the city council could fire an employee or fine someone up to $1,000 – just for revealing public information to the public.

The ordinance extends this abuse of power well beyond meetings and records: “Confidential information is, at the time of a proposed disclosure, information where the city’s interests in its confidentiality or in the city’s effective functioning outweigh an interest in free speech to disclose same . . . For purposes of this section, information shall include knowledge imparted orally, recordings and written documents or records.”

That’s a confusing mouthful. But the translation is clear enough: If you tell somebody something officials don’t want told, you’ll pay for it.

La Crosse officials may be trying to address a genuine worry that leaks of legitimately private information should not be tolerated. But these “anti-leak” ordinances do more harm than good.

La Crosse’s ordinance is hostile to the notion that government belongs to the people. It says: Never mind voters. And never mind the First Amendment.

Such ordinances enable partisan bullying, help conceal sweetheart deals and can be used to cover up government waste and abuse. Everyone from the public works director to a building inspector’s secretary will be afraid to blow the whistle when something — or someone — is rotten.

No doubt, city officials have a role in stopping leaks. But they should focus on fixing the kind that seep under public streets and sidewalks.

Tom Sheehan is a state Capitol correspondent for Lee Newspapers in Wisconsin. Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Freedom of Information Council, a Wisconsin nonprofit group devoted to open government.