Residents need to keep vigilance for open government
The Wisconsin Public Records Board, an appointed group of non-elected citizens, voted unanimously Monday, Jan. 11, to rescind its Aug. 24 decision that limited the access of citizens and media outlets to information from texts, emails, Facebook messages and other electronic methods that public employees might use to communicate about official actions.
The public was unaware of the Aug. 24 decision because the issue was never included on the agenda for the meeting, nor even recorded in the committee minutes of the meeting.
The Wisconsin State Journal received a hint about the changes the day after the Aug. 24 vote, when the Walker administration responded to a records request for some text messages by saying it had no such transitory messages from texts, emails, Facebook messages and other electronic methods. Yet those types of messages are used more commonly today than written ones.
The Public Records Board’s action also came less than two months after state legislators and Gov. Scott Walker withdrew a proposal to change the Open Meetings Law when the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee inserted an omnibus motion into the budget to permit more secrecy in government on the eve of the Fourth of July weekend.
And it took a few more months after the board’s action before the public knew about the board’s changes.
The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council filed a verified complaint Monday, Dec. 14, with the Dane County district attorney against the Public Records Board, alleging violations of the Open Meetings Law. The Freedom of Information Council charged that the board failed to provide adequate notice of the meeting’s subject matter in the agenda, and subsequently failed to record the actions taken, such as motions and roll call votes, in the minutes of that meeting.
More than 1,800 citizens and open government advocates wrote letters and emails to the board, saying they opposed the changes, and others spoke their opposition at the meeting. Matthew Blessing, the chairman of the board said he thinks the board needs to define what records should be considered transitory but didn’t announce when the board will consider that.
The Legislature, especially Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and members of Gov. Scott Walker’s administration, have also said open meeting and open records laws need to be changed.
Government officials are elected by the public, promising to run an open, honest government. Sadly, more officials seem to want hide their work from the public, especially when records might reveal something embarrassing or show favoritism toward campaign donors and special interests.
Recent actions indicate citizens need to remain vigilant and keep an eye on the efforts of public officials. Two events in the last six months don’t speak well of maintaining an open and honest government. They might try to act again.
– Gene Kemmeter