March: Group doles out the honors

2009 Columns

As part of national Sunshine Week, March 15-21, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is bestowing its third annual Opee Awards in recognition of people and institutions that have had an impact on open government in Wisconsin during the last year.

The honorees are:

Political Openness Advocate of the Year (the “Popee”): Roger Allen. Most moves to change Wisconsin’s open government laws have the consequence if not the intent of making them weaker. Allen, an assistant city attorney in Madison, oversaw an overhaul of its public records law that is actually an improvement.

The changes bring the ordinance up to date, addressing such issues as e-mail retention and text messaging, and could serve as a model for communities throughout the state. It’s online at; search for Section 3.70.

Citizen Openness Advocates of the Year (the “Copee”): James Drabek. This Balsam Lake-area building contractor was upset that the Polk County Board repeatedly met in secret to discuss the sale of a nursing home. And so he filed a complaint and successfully assumed the role of citizen prosecutor.

The board claimed secrecy was justified because the issue was contentious. Late last year a judge disagreed, finding the board guilty of multiple violations of the open meetings law.

Media Openness Advocates of the Year (the “Mopee”): Wisconsin State Journal, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, WISC-TV, WTMJ-TV. These four media outlets refused to take “You can’t know” for an answer when they tried to learn more about why police were not dispatched in response to a UW-Madison student’s call for help shortly before she was murdered. They filed a lawsuit, and a judge eventually 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. This enterprising reporter obtained records showing that Wisconsin Commerce Secretary Jack Fischer and his assistant billed taxpayers more than $21,000 for three international trips. He also found 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: “On several occasions during the trip I was embarrassed that he was our leader.”‘

Ouch. Within a few days, Fischer submitted his resignation.

No Friend of Openness Award (the “Nopee”): Sauk County. It wasn’t just one thing, it was several. 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.

As the council found during its 2008 audit of state open records compliance, the charging of high fees designed to either make money or frustrate requesters is a growing problem.

But there is some good news. This year the Council decided against giving an award for Dumbest Open Government Decision (the “Dopee”). There were decisions we disagreed with, but none that seemed worthy of special approbation. Maybe next year.

Lueders is president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the FOIC.