Your Right to Know: End lawmakers’ ability to destroy records

Not long ago, I asked Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) for records regarding a controversial bill he helped author on free-speech rights at state universities. I had already obtained some communications between Vos aide Alicia Schweitzer and the Legislative Reference Bureau, from the bill-drafting file. They showed that his office had added bill language calling on UW-System schools to punish “indecent, profane, boisterous (or) obscene” conduct that interfered with others’ free speech. The LRB bill drafter, Mark Kunkel, deleted these terms, saying they were overly broad and ambiguous. But Schweitzer insisted that they be restored.

Your Right to Know: Lawmakers abuse budget-fix motion

It’s been nearly two years since Republicans in the state Legislature tried to use a secretive, last-minute measure just before the July 4 holiday weekend to gut Wisconsin’s open records law. This effort, once publicized, was met with public outrage and abandoned. This was the most egregious but by no means only example of lawmakers trying to slip bad ideas into the state budget bill in the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, under what is known as a 999 motion. As lawmakers prepare to wrap up the 2017-19 state budget by July 1, the 999 motion remains a serious threat to open government and the public interest. Originally intended to address technical issues and correct problems in the budget bill before it goes to the full Legislature, 999 motions have increasingly been used by both parties as a hiding spot for pet projects.

Your Right to Know: Walker’s order on records is welcome

In March, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker issued an executive order directing state agencies to track and post their open record request response times and giving procedural guidance that should make it easier for citizens to request and receive records.

Wisconsin’s ‘news deserts’ hurt our democracy — but you can help

News deserts are geographical areas or socioeconomic groups that are parched of fresh, important local news, whether it’s a result of the shuttering of neighborhood newspapers, downsizing and the limited resources of news outlets or a lack of coverage of particular topics. Help WCIJ identify news deserts in Wisconsin by writing to me at msato@wisconsinwatch.org.

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council names ‘Opee’ winners

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.

Your Right to Know: Keep public notices in print

For more than two centuries, governments in this country have paid newspapers to publish public notices about the actions of government. But now, Wisconsin state legislators are circulating a pair of bills, AB70 and SB42, that aim to take public notices out of newspapers and put them instead on government websites. It’s a bad idea that would harm transparency, democracy and public trust. Without a third-party, independent source providing the information, there is no accountability, no checks and balances to make sure that government is posting all the public notices it is required by law to post. Most Wisconsin residents continue to rely on the printed newspaper for information about their local elected governments, as they have for decades.

Your Right to Know: Trump raises stakes for press, public

Two days before the new president’s inauguration, the Society of Professional Journalists and dozens of other media and government transparency groups sent a letter asking Donald Trump for a meeting to discuss his administration’s relationship with the press. Among other things, the groups wanted Trump to affirm his commitment to the First Amendment, assure media access to his presidential activities, and allow expert government employees to talk to the media rather than muzzle them in favor of public relations officials. Trump has yet to respond. However, the new administration issued orders to employees of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture not to convey information to the media or public. Officials also imposed a news blackout at the Department of Transportation.