Even after an open-government win, there is no reason to believe politicians won’t try again to steal the public’s right to know
In a democracy, it is assumed that government functions in full view of the public—no secret meetings, no hidden documents.
But in the Wisconsin state government’s version of democracy, open government cannot be assumed.
In a democracy, citizens should not have to fight for their right to know everything about the government that spends their tax money and makes decisions that affect their lives.
But in the Wisconsin state government’s version of democracy, citizens do have to fight to protect that right—because government officials are trying to destroy it.
In Wisconsin, the right to know is a fight to know.
The latest evidence of that is the decision by the state Public Records Board to allow emails, text messages, Facebook posts and other electronic communications of government officials to be kept secret.
The decision itself was made virtually in secret in a meeting of the board last August that violated the state open meetings by being held without the required public notice.
The public didn’t know electronic government communications could suddenly be hidden, but the Walker administration certainly did. The very next day it announced that it could not provide text messages sought by a Madison newspaper under the open records law because, in keeping with the Public Record Board’s decision, they had not been saved.
That was convenient, to say the least. The messages were about a Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. loan that is an embarrassment to the Walker administration. The owner of the company that got the taxpayer-funded loan, a donor to Walker campaigns, defaulted and was found to have given the state false information.
Yes, Wisconsin citizens do have to fight for the information that belongs them, and they are. They sent nearly 2,000 emails last week demanding that the Public Records Board revoke its action. And under this withering public condemnation, the board did just that on Monday.
This is a win for open government and citizen activism that is worth celebrating, yet the fact that this battle had to be fought is a sad reminder of the ethical void that seems to exist in this state concerning democracy’s imperative to be open.
It was less than seven months ago that citizens had to go through the same exercise to defend access to government records. Then it was the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee using a budget amendment to put severe limits on open records. That attempt to hide government communications was also withdrawn in the face of furious public criticism.
The mystery here is what constituency the politicians who attempt these thefts of the public’s right to know think they are serving. The outcry against them has crossed political lines, voiced by Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. Voters may be polarized on many issues, but not on the issue of open government.
Elected officials of both parties have also criticized the moves to hide records, including Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel. Among Ozaukee County’s representatives in the Legislature, however, silence has prevailed.
Where exactly do State Senators Duey Stroebel and Alberta Darling and Reps. Rob Brooks, Dan Knodl and Jim Ott stand on the repeated attempts to deny citizens information about their government?
Those citizens need an answer. They’re involved in an ongoing battle to protect their right to open government, and they need to know who their allies, and their enemies, in that fight are.