Two citizens, two journalists, one fired government worker and one small but gutsy Wisconsin newspaper are among the recipients of the 2016-17 Openness Awards, or Opees, bestowed annually by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
The awards, announced in advance of national Sunshine Week (sunshineweek.org), March 12-18, recognize extraordinary achievement in the cause of open government. This is the 11th consecutive year that awards have been given.
“Now, more than ever, protecting Wisconsin’s traditions of open government depends on the courage and initiative of individuals,” said Bill Lueders, council president. “We saw a good deal of that in 2016.”
The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is a nonpartisan group that seeks to promote open government. It consists of about two dozen members representing media and other public interests. Sponsoring organizations include the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, Wisconsin Associated Press, Wisconsin News Photographers and the Madison Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. (Two staff members of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Managing Editor Dee J. Hall and Executive Director Andy Hall, serve on the council.)
The winners are invited to receive their awards at the seventh annual Wisconsin Watchdog Awards Dinner in Madison on Thursday, March 30. The event is presented jointly by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and the Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Awards are being given this year in six categories. The winners are:
Citizen Openness Award (“Copee”): Tie: John Krueger, Lance Fena
Krueger, an Appleton parent, joined with the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty in suing the Appleton Area School District for not letting him attend meetings of a committee formed in response to his curricula-related concerns. That case is now being decided by the state Supreme Court. Fena is the Milton School District resident who asserted his right to make a video recording at a school board meeting, as the law expressly allows. The board not only backed down after initially adjourning to avoid being filmed, it subsequently began live-streaming its proceedings.
Media Openness Award (“Mopee”): New Richmond News
It took more than three years, but this small newspaper in St. Croix County won its case challenging wholesale records redactions by law enforcement agencies all around the state. A state appeals court in May affirmed that local officials were overreacting to a 2012 federal court ruling in the amount of driver-license-related information they have been withholding. Issues remain but the New Richmond News brought a measure of clarity to what had been chaos.
Political Openness Award (“Popee”): Cory Mason
This Democratic lawmaker from Racine continues his efforts to end the ability of legislative party caucuses to meet in secret, but revelations that GOP lawmakers in 2011 used this secrecy to gleefully attack voting rights make the issue more urgent than ever. Mason also broke ranks with some members of his party last year to make the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association subject to state openness laws, and before that opposed efforts to reduce transparency of campaign donors and the attempt to gut the open records law through the state budget.
Open Records Scoop of the Year: Tie: Katelyn Ferral, Patrick Marley
In what was a banner year for reporting that drew on public records, we picked two major projects involving threats to vulnerable populations. Ferral, of The Capital Times, exposed the dismal conditions at a state veterans facility in King, Wisconsin; the Legislature ordered an audit, the federal government issued citations, and the head of the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs resigned. Marley and other Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters documented shocking abuses at two state juvenile prisons; the state has increased training and oversight, and federal authorities are looking into possible indictments and civil rights prosecutions.
Whistleblower of the Year (“Whoopee”): Ronald Klym
This federal employee, a long-time senior legal assistant for the administrative law judges who grant or deny Social Security benefits, blew the whistle on what Watchdog.org, which reported his story, called “incompetence, misconduct and long case delays” at a Milwaukee disability office. Klym was allegedly subjected to additional work assignments, unreasonable deadlines and unjustified suspensions; in August, he was fired. “Absolutely. I am being punished because I am a whistleblower,” he said at the time. Now he’s being honored for it.
No Friend of Openness (“Nopee”): The Wisconsin Department of Corrections
Among an unfortunately broad array of candidates, no other state agency has compiled such a bleak record on openness. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in June catalogued an array of DOC denials and delays, including those concerning the state’s troubled juvenile prisons. In September, the agency proceeded with a plan to immediately destroy training videos after earlier spiking plans to do so. And DOC Secretary Ed Wall was fired for writing to another state official at home with the express goal of avoiding the open records law. The DOC’s awesome power to deprive people of liberty must be matched with a strong commitment to transparency. We’re waiting.