Bill Lueders is seen at the Wisconsin Watchdog Awards in Madison, Wis., on April 16, 2019 during the presentation of the Opee Awards. Ben Brewer for Wisconsin Watch
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A citizen concerned about plans to develop a city park, an alderperson who felt his
colleagues broke the law and a district attorney who filed charges against a town
for open records violations are among the winners in this year’s Openness Awards,
or Opees, bestowed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

The awards, announced today in advance of national Sunshine Week
(sunshineweek.org), March 13-19, recognize outstanding efforts to protect the
state’s tradition of open government — and highlight some threats to it.

This is the 16th consecutive year that Opees have been awarded. They will be
presented at the Wisconsin Watchdog Awards reception and dinner, on Thursday,
April 21, at the Madison Club in Madison, beginning at 5 p.m.

Online registration for the 2022 Wisconsin Watchdog Awards reception and dinner

“Like all areas of civic life, the pursuit of transparency in government has heroes
and villains, both of whom deserve recognition,” said Bill Lueders, council
president. “Our openness laws are only as strong as our willingness to defend
them.”

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a nonpartisan group that seeks to
promote open government, consists of about two dozen members representing
media and other public interests. Sponsoring organizations include the Wisconsin
Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and the Madison
Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Awards are being given this year in six categories. The winners are:

Citizen Openness Award (“Copee”): Christine Brennan

When a proposed Fond du Lac park redevelopment didn’t pass the smell test, this citizen asked to see the records of communications between public officials and project backers. When the city asked her for $6,888 on top of the $1,000 she had already paid to locate these records, she balked. Her experience helped raise public awareness of abusive location fee costs and led to better methods for archiving records in Fond du Lac. And the released records spurred a backlash against the project and the city council members who supported it.

Political Openness Award (“Popee”): Winnebago County District Attorney’s Office

While state district attorneys have statutory authority to bring open records and open meeting enforcement actions, they seldom do. But Eric Sparr, the deputy district attorney of Winnebago County, and his boss, District Attorney Christian Gossett, cut against the grain when they charged Town of Omro officials on eight counts for open records violations. A hearing on the charges is set for March 11.

Honorable mention: Tony Evers

Wisconsin’s governor this year vetoed a bill that unanimously passed both houses of the Legislature to create a new legislative human resources office with built-in secrecy provisions. He also proposed in his budget to raise the threshold for when records custodians can tack on location costs from $50 to $100.

Media Openness Award (“Mopee”): Isiah Holmes, Wisconsin Examiner

Holmes and this online news outlet have made prodigious use of the state’s open records law to unearth often shocking information on Wauwatosa’s police department, which deemed Wauwatosa Mayor Dennis McBride a “target” and maintained a watchlist of protesters and that Holmes himself was on for covering the protests as a journalist. Exposing such abuses serves the highest purpose of our open records law.

Open Records Scoop of the Year (“Scoopee”): The  Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Wisconsin’s largest daily paper and reporters including John Diedrich, Raquel Rutledge and Daphne Chen used city inspection reports and other records to produce a series of stories that exposed how dangerous electrical wiring has for years been causing fires and claiming victims in Milwaukee rental units. The series, “Wires and Fires,” spurred city officials to seek ways to prevent these fires from occurring.

Whistleblower of the Year: Douglas Oitzinger 

This alderperson in the city of Marinette stood up to his fellow city council members in favor of transparency when he filed suit in December alleging that they had improperly gone into closed session to discuss water supply options. “This is about open government,” he told the local paper. “That’s all it’s about.”

No Friend of Openness (“Nopee”): Michael Gableman and Robin Vos

What exactly is Gableman, a former state Supreme Court justice, doing for the $676,000 in taxpayer funds that Vos, the speaker of the state Assembly, agreed to pay him? Neither Gableman nor Vos seem to want people to know, despite a judge’s finding that their “denials, delays, and refusals” violate the records law. In fact, so few records have been provided in response to records requests that there is speculation that records are being destroyed. So is the state’s tradition of open government.

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