A group of residents concerned about the impact of a local park redevelopment, a school board member who blew the whistle on his colleagues for being too secretive, and a longtime city official who has made a habit of accessibility are among the winners in this year’s Openness Awards, or Opees, bestowed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
Also being honored are news outlets that fought for and used records to break important stories. Meanwhile, a school district that has demonstrated “casual contempt for the public’s right to know” is being singled out for negative recognition.
The awards, announced today in advance of national Sunshine Week (sunshineweek.org), March 12-18, recognize outstanding efforts to protect the state’s tradition of open government — and highlight some threats to it.
This is the 17th consecutive year that Opees have been awarded. Winners will receive a certificate suitable for framing and be invited to attend the Wisconsin Watchdog Awards annual reception and dinner, which will take place sometime this fall.
“This was an uncommonly flush year in terms of the number of nominations that were received and it was not easy to decide on just a few,” said Bill Lueders, council president. “There is much that is happening to advance the cause of open government in Wisconsin.”
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.
The judging committee for this year consisted of Lueders, Wisconsin State Journal editor Kelly Lecker, Capital Times editor Mark Treinen, former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel “Ideas Lab” editor David Haynes, and Sam Martino of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Awards are being given this year in six categories. The winners are:
Public Openness Award (“Popee”): Jim O’Keefe
This longtime legislative analyst for the city of Madison and now director of its Community Development Division was nominated by Judith Davidoff, editor of the? Isthmus newspaper in Madison, for his “extraordinary” accessibility under four mayors. In an era where, she noted, “it is now rare for public administrators to answer their own phones and talk directly to reporters,” O’Keefe goes the extra mile, even intervening to help a reporter who was having trouble getting a call-back from someone else in city government. In recognizing O’Keefe, we also acknowledge the many other public officials in Wisconsin who regard transparency as a blessing and not a burden.
Media Openness Award (“Mopee”): The Badger Project
This nonpartisan, nonprofit and citizen-supported investigative reporting outlet, led by managing editor Peter Cameron, pulled back the veil on police officers who are disciplined and even fired for misconduct only to be hired by other law enforcement agencies. It has filed lawsuits to pry loose relevant records against two police departments (La Crosse and Wausau) and used a list maintained by the state Department of Justice to shine a light on these cases. The outlet’s reporting on this issue began in 2021, when it revealed that nearly 200 Wisconsin officers have been rehired after being fired or forced out, and it is ongoing.
Citizen Openness Award (“Copee”): Friends of Frame Park
Concerned about a proposed baseball stadium that would have transformed a local park in Waukesha, this group of local residents fought all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court to defend the public’s right to access records regarding the details of the plan, such as how much it would cost taxpayers. Sadly, the court’s conservative majority, in a 4-3 vote, reversed an appellate court ruling and gutted the fee-shifting provisions in the state’s open records law, for which a legislative fix is now being sought.
Open Records Scoop of the Year (“Scoopee”): “Cash Not Care,” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The state’s largest newspaper proved its mettle for the umpteenth time in this powerful series of articles by reporters Cary Spivak and Mary Spicuzza. They examined the high infant mortality among Black people in Wisconsin while exposing malfeasance in a shadowy network of businesses known as prenatal care coordination companies. They spent months filing public records requests, reviewing thousands of pages of documents, conducting interviews and doing shoe-leather reporting. The series led to increased scrutiny of these companies by state officials.
Whistleblower of the Year (“Whoopee”): Mike Meier
This member of the Wauwatosa School Board alleged that the board met improperly to discuss how to respond to a records request and that he was punished by the board president for being more open than necessary. Meier is a quoted source in several articles about a school administrator who helped steer a contract to consultants who employed her husband. In the end, both the administrator and board president resigned. Pushing back against the charge that he revealed too much, Meier said, “Our whole system counts on the elected officials being watched in the public square as to how they conduct their business.”
No Friend of Openness (“Nopee”): The Madison Metropolitan School District
It’s rare for a public institution that depends on taxpayer support to be as awful as this one when it comes to public records and accountability. The district, through spokesperson Tim LeMonds, has become notorious for outrageous delays and excuses, prompting multiple lawsuits alleging violations of the records law. Tom Kamenick, the president and founder of the Wisconsin Transparency Project, wrote in an email to the Capital Times that he has “received more complaints about MMSD than any other government agency.” It is time for the district’s casual contempt for the public’s right to know to come to a screeching halt.