March: Openness awards cap trying year

2014 Columns

This last year has seen almost constant threats to the state’s openness laws. We’ve had local law enforcement agencies suppressing drivers license information, a state senator claiming immunity from civil suits to evade the open records law, and attempts to deny public access to records of circuit court cases and university research.

All of these threats were met with opposition, and none of these battles has yet been lost. But the year served to remind us that the price of protecting our state’s traditions of open government is eternal vigilance.

As part of national Sunshine Week (March 16-22), the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is bestowing awards for extraordinary achievement in the cause of open government. There are five positive Openness Awards, or Opees, and one negative, the Nopee.

The awards will be presented at the fourth annual Wisconsin Watchdog Awards Dinner in Madison on Wednesday, April 23. The event is presented jointly by the Council, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, and the Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Political Openness Award (“Popee”): Dan Ault. Throughout the state, dozens of law enforcement agencies are withholding basic information like names and ages from accident reports, under an overzealous interpretation of a federal court ruling. Ault, the police chief of Oconto in northeast Wisconsin, this summer bucked the trend and began providing fuller disclosure. “It’s just common sense,” Ault said. And it’s about time other officials started following his lead.

Citizen Openness Award (“Copee”): Becky Kostopolus and Marilyn Bartelt. Kostopolus, a mother in Appleton, complained to the school district about teachers who posted inappropriate comments about her son. District officials wouldn’t say what if any action they took in response, so Bartelt, the boy’s grandmother, requested disciplinary records for seven educators. When the request was denied, she sued, with the help of attorney April Barker. In February, a judge ordered the records released.

Media Openness Award (“Mopee”): Ellen Gabler and Allan James Vestal, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Reporter Gabler and news applications developer Vestal documented gaping disparities and delays in a common genetic test given to newborns, resulting in preventable disability and even death. The pair fought to obtain records from about 30 states, then worked to analyze and present the data. The “Deadly Delays” series, also involving reporters Mark Johnson and John Fauber and photojournalist Kristyna Wentz-Graff, spurred congressional action and individual state reforms.

Open Records Scoop of the Year (“Scoopee”): David Wahlberg, Wisconsin State Journal. This seasoned reporter culled public records and created his own database to expose the lax treatment by the state medical-examining board of physicians. Wahlberg found cases involving serious injury and even deaths that drew mere reprimands. The series, “Doctor Discipline,” led to changes in practice and promises of further reform.

Whistleblower of the Year: David Salkin. When this Milwaukee property owner learned that the bad tenants who rented space from him for a store were undercover federal agents, he contacted the press. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s year-long investigation exposed a series of failures and rogue tactics that put the community at risk, prompting a federal investigation and congressional hearings.

No Friend of Openness Award (“Nopee”): Sen. Glenn Grothman. As noted above, there was no shortage of attacks this year on the public’s right to know by members of the Legislature. But Grothman, R-West Bend, took top honors for sponsoring a bill to end the requirement that political campaigns disclose the principal employer of major donors, and another bill to purge information from the state’s online court records system.

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