March 8, 2012

Lawmakers on both ends of openness awards

As part of national Sunshine Week, March 11-17, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is bestowing its annual “Opee” Awards for openness in government. And Wisconsin state lawmakers have been tapped for both kinds of awards — good as well as bad.

Six Opees are being given to eight individuals for 2011-12. The winners receive certificates and are invited to the second annual WisconsinWatch.orgdog Awards Dinner in Madison on April 25, presented by the council, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, and the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

This year’s honorees are:

Political Openness Advocates of the Year (the “Popee”): State Rep. Jon Richards, Sen. Jim Holperin and Rep. Ed Brooks. Richards introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to make the state Legislature explicitly subject to the Open Meetings Law. Holperin sponsored a bill to make state legislators subject to the same records retention rules as other state and local public officials. And Brooks, citing concerns raised by the state Justice Department, put the skids on a Legislative Council committee that wanted to dramatically restrict public access to court records.

Citizen Openness Advocate of the Year (the “Copee”): Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. No one has done more than this nonpartisan watchdog group to hold public officials accountable by demanding transparency, not only in campaign financing but in the operations of government, and no one has taken more heat for it, especially this year. Special mention goes to the group’s opposition to a bill, still pending, that would in most cases end the requirement that political donors identify their primary employer.

Media Openness Advocate of the Year (the “Mopee”): Capital Newspapers. This Madison-based media empire had a banner year for openness fights. The Baraboo News Republic sued to get records of a state investigation into raw milk sales and a serious accident caused by a Sauk County jail inmate. The Juneau County Star-Times won an important appellate court ruling to get invoices from a law firm representing the county. And Portage Daily Register is going after the city of Portage for denying access to the performance reviews of department heads.

Open Records Scoop of the Year (the “Scoopee”): Gina Barton, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for “Both Sides of the Law.” It took 19 months and cost $7,500 in fees, but the paper managed to document through public records that at least 93 Milwaukee police officers – about 5 percent of the total police force – have been disciplined for “violating the laws and ordinances they were sworn to uphold.” The offenses included drunken driving, domestic violence and sexual assault, and officers in some cases got breaks from prosecutors.

Whistleblower of the Year (the “Whoopee”): Ken Stenklyft. When this respected member of the Calumet County Board learned of problems with the county’s emergency dispatch system, he wrote a letter to the sheriff and fellow board members. But the county’s corporation counsel in May blocked distribution of this letter, claiming it was a personnel matter. So Stenklyft, also the village president of Hilbert, resigned from the board, telling the Brillion News, “I’m not going to stay quiet.” We’re glad he didn’t.

No Friend of Openness Award (the “Nopee”): The Wisconsin State Legislature. From ignoring the open meetings law in hastily passing a collective bargaining bill in March, to barring even police from knowing who may be carrying concealed weapons, to cracking down on cameras in the state Assembly, to embracing extreme secrecy in redistricting, the Legislature demonstrated not just disregard but actual contempt for Wisconsin’s traditions of open government. It was a disgraceful performance we hope is never repeated.