April 17, 2010

March 2010: WisFOIC’s Opee Awards

As part of national Sunshine Week (sunshineweek.org), March 14-20, 2010, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is bestowing its fourth annual Opee Awards to people and institutions that have had an impact on open government in Wisconsin.

This was an usually busy year for openness issues. The state Supreme Court ruled that state agencies could not enter into agreements to keep secret the names of public employees. The Legislature has made progress toward passing a law to protect the ability of media to obtain information from confidential sources. And smaller clashes have helped reaffirm the obligations of public officials to conduct the public’s business in, well, public.

The winners are:

Political Openness Advocate of the Year (the “Popee”): J.B. Van Hollen. Wisconsin’s Attorney General has continued to host tutorials throughout the state on Wisconsin’s openness laws and he and others in his office have written strong letters on the obligations of public officials under these laws, including calls for openness in e-mail meetings and social media. The office has also vigorously defended Wisconsin’s online state court records system against increasing attack.

Citizen Openness Advocate of the Year (the “Copee”): Daniel O. Wilson. This Weyauwega resident has twice won lawsuits against the Weyauwega-Fremont Board of Education over its apparent wanton disregard of openness laws. In a case decided this April, the board (which has now lost four such lawsuits in three years) spent $120,000 in taxpayer dollars on its defense and had to reimburse Wilson for $27,000 in legal fees. Let’s hope it got the message this time. If not, Wilson may need to issue another reminder.

Media Openness Advocate(s) of the Year (the “Mopee”): Tie: The UWM Post and the Green Bay Press Gazette. The UW-Milwaukee student paper asked for and got an informal opinion from Van Hollen advising that student governments are usually subject to the state’s open meetings law and successfully sued the university over its efforts to conceal the names of students who served on a campus committee. The Press Gazette, meanwhile, sued to force the city to release the invoices of law firms doing city work, and thus found that the city had failed to disclose nearly a half-million dollars in recent legal costs.

Open Records Scoop of the Year (the “Scoopee”): Tony Galli. The veteran reporter for WKOW Ch. 27 in Madison breaks a lot of stories by making prodigious use of the state’s open records laws. This year he used public records to confirm that a controversial judicial pick was passed up as a finalist by a nominating committee. And he was the first to obtain dramatic video of state Rep. Fred Clark running a red light and hitting a bicyclist.

No Friend of Openness Award (the “Nopee”): The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA). The association, which runs high school athletic events, is aggressively fighting legislation that would compel it to obey the same openness laws as schools. It’s also sued two newspapers and the Wisconsin Newspaper Association for daring to offer a live stream of a high school football game, which it considers its exclusive purview. Wisconsin to WIAA, with regard to openness: Try it, you’ll like it.

Dumbest Open Government Decision (the “Dopee”): Wisconsin Department of Corrections. When The Associated Press asked for the video of a cell extraction that led to a successful inmate lawsuit, the DOC refused, claiming it would expose the limitations of its surveillance camera system. The problem with this explanation is that the video was in this case taken by a hand-held camera. The AP sued, in the end getting the video and $5,000 to cover its legal fees. The DOC got egg on its face, and this award.