FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Bill Lueders (608) 251-5627
March 12, 2009
State FOI Council Bestows Annual “Opee” Awards
The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, as part of national Sunshine Week (sunshineweek.org), March 15-21, is bestowing its third annual round of awards in recognition of people and institutions that have shaped the fortunes of open government in Wisconsin.
Five Openness Awards (“the Opees”) are being given for achievements high and low in 2007-2008. Award winners will receive attractive certificates, suitable for framing.
“This is a way to acknowledge outstanding achievements, good and bad, regarding the public’s right to know,” said Bill Lueders, council president. “We’re pleased that there are more good than bad things to acknowledge this year.”
Indeed, the council decided against giving its award for Dumbest Open Government Award (the “Dopee”) as it has in the past. “There were decisions we disagreed with, but none that seemed worthy of special approbation,” said Lueders. “Maybe next year.”
The honorees are:
Political Openness Advocate of the Year (the “Popee”): Roger Allen, Madison assistant city attorney, for giving that city’s open records ordinance a much-needed retooling, bringing it up to date and making it clearer and stronger. The new ordinance, which addresses such issues as e-mail retention and text messaging, could serve as a model for communities throughout the state. (Go to tinyurl.com/d45h5m and search for Section 3.70.)
Citizen Openness Advocates of the Year (the “Copee”): James Drabek, for successfully challenging the Polk County Board for repeatedly going into closed session to discuss the sale of a nursing home. In what’s been called a first-of-its-kind case, this Balsam Lake-area building contractor not only filed a complaint, he successfully assumed the role of citizen prosecutor.
On Dec. 26, Judge Eugene Harrington rejected the board’s claims that secrecy was justified because the issue was contentious. He found the 23-member board guilty of multiple violations, but recently decided against imposing sanctions.
Media Openness Advocate of the Year (the “Mopee”): Wisconsin State Journal, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, WISC-TV, WTMJ-TV, for fighting for the public’s right to know what went wrong when a citizen dialed 911 for help.
Authorities in Dane County denied access to all sorts of information regarding a mishandled emergency call (no police were sent) placed by a UW-Madison student shortly before she was murdered. In the end, a judge ordered officials to release most of what they had tried to suppress, including records revealing that the call consisted of screams and sounds of a struggle.
Open Records Scoop of the Year (the “Scoopee”): Patrick Marley, for his reporting on trade junkets taken by now-former state Commerce Secretary Jack Fischer. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter used records obtained under the law to tabulate that Fischer and his assistant billed taxpayers more than $21,000 for three international trips. Also unearthed was an evaluation from one of Fischer’s fellow travelers that pegged his participation in a trip to Ireland and England as hurtful to the cause. Fischer submitted his resignation shortly after these stories ran.
No Friend of Openness Award (the “Nopee”): Sauk County, for a range of transgressions against the public’s right to know. The Sauk County sheriff’s office was sued – unsuccessfully but perhaps deservedly – by a Sauk County Board member seeking access to information; the case is under appeal. The county angered members of its own Board of Health by keeping them in the dark about a personnel decision. And it tried to double the cost of copies from the sheriff’s office to 50 cents a page, until the Council complained and the state Attorney General’s office intervened.
“Sauk County did the right thing in rescinding this hike,” said Lueders. “Unfortunately, we’re seeing a lot of this lately – high fees designed to either make money or frustrate requesters, neither of which the law permits.”