Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

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February: OpenBook offers partial peek at state spending

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In January, the state of Wisconsin launched a new website with a searchable database that lets the public see what state government spends on goods, services and other operating costs.

OpenBook Wisconsin — openbook.wi.gov — debuted with more than 25 million records for expenses including real estate transactions, building projects, maintenance, office supplies, and rents.

Records for state agencies, the Legislature and the courts date back to mid-2007. The site’s records for the University of Wisconsin System start in fiscal 2013.

The site, which the state plans to update every two weeks, allows searches for each fiscal year by state agency, type of expenditure or vendor. The records viewers see are similar to listings on monthly credit card statements. 

On the plus side, OpenBook Wisconsin lets members of the public instantly obtain some information on state spending that they once would have had to ask for and wait. It provides a variety of avenues for people to monitor how much state government spends.

But the site also has some glaring minuses. OpenBook provides an overwhelming amount of data, but the records are scant on meaningful details and descriptions to the point of being misleading. Some examples:

* The site lists $22.4 million in information technology payments to private companies in fiscal 2013 by the Department of Health Services but doesn’t describe the purchased goods, services or projects. Health Services is one of the state’s largest agencies with oversight over hundreds of health care, insurance, public safety and other programs.

All told, state agencies paid private companies nearly $94 million for IT goods and services that year. But the website’s users don’t get any details of what the state specifically got for its buck.

* The site shows the Department of Natural Resources spent $47.1 million for land and related fees and costs in fiscal 2011. The records show the date, vendor, cost and whether the purchase was for conservation or capital construction, repair or maintenance projects. But users are not told the location or amount of land purchased, or details about the capital project.

One entry shows the department paid the Society of Tympanuchus $1.2 million on July 13, 2010, for a capital improvement. End of story.

* The site says the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation paid the Potawatomi Bingo Casino $5,833 on Oct. 15, 2012 for “Miscellaneous Services.”  Hmmm. Perhaps the state paid for a wild night of bingo and slots for some of its employees?

Actually, no. The site lets users request more information about specific transactions. I did so for this transaction and a day later received a response from WEDC spokesman Mark Maley. He said the payment was for food, beverages and rent to hold a two-day education and training conference to assist businesses owned by women, minorities and disabled veterans.

The Department of Administration plans to add additional information over the course of months and even years, like spending on state salaries, contracts and grants, and greater detail on spending records when technology develops to let it do so.

OpenBook is the state’s second attempt to make state spending more transparent to the public on a large scale. It replaces an online database called Contract Sunshine launched in 2007 that was chronically incomplete and difficult to use.

Let’s hope the second try does a better job at giving the public what it has a right to know.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Council member Michael Buelow is a former Associated Press reporter and research director for the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (www.wisdc.org).

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 January 2014 09:50

Seeking Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award nominations

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Nominations are being sought for the 2014 Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award, presented annually to recognize an individual's extraordinary contributions to open government or investigative journalism in Wisconsin.

Dave Zweifel, editor emeritus of The Capital Times and a founder of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, was named the inaugural winner in 2011. The late Dick Wheeler, founder of the Wheeler Report and a tireless advocate for public access to the workings of state government, was honored in 2012. And in 2013, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman, the chief author of Wisconsin's Open Records Law and a strong advocate of the Open Meetings Law, received the award.

The award is presented jointly by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Letters of nomination are accepted from journalists, news organizations and other individuals and organizations involved in open government and investigative journalism issues.

They should be sent by Jan. 22 to Andy Hall, the Center's executive director, at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or WCIJ, 5006 Vilas Communication Hall, 821 University Ave., Madison, WI 53706.

The recipient will be selected by a panel of representatives from the Center, FOIC and SPJ, and will be honored at the Wisconsin Watchdog Awards reception and dinner, which is scheduled for April 23 at The Madison Club.


November: Don’t shield donor employer info

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Cindy Kilkenny

State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, would like to change the way Wisconsin records campaign donations. He’s introduced a bill to raise the threshold for when donors to state and local campaigns must disclose their occupations from its current level of more than $100 to more than $500.

The bill would also eliminate the requirement that the donor’s principal place of employment be disclosed.

Grothman says the change is needed to reduce the harassment of businesses whose employees back candidates. In 2012, for instance, boycotts were launched against some companies whose executives backed Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

The bill, SB 282 and its companion, AB 378, has had hearings in both legislative houses and appears to be on a fast track to passage.

But the bill is a bad idea, for various reasons. That’s why it has drawn opposition from editorial boards, good government groups and even people like me: a blogger for the website Fairly Conservative.

As I told the Senate committee that held a recent hearing on this bill, I rely on databases that provide campaign finance information. I use them to identify contributors, note patterns and break stories.

A couple of weeks ago, I noted that the Potawatomi were big donors to Walker; the tribe opposes the expansion of casino gambling, which Walker has the power to do. In Brookfield, I use similar reports to determine which developers are bankrolling which local candidates.

Employer information also helps differentiate donors.

Believe it or not, there is more than one Mary Burke who lives in Madison and who has given money to state candidates. It helps that some donations are identified with her former employer, Trek Bicycle.

Grothman and committee chair Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, noted that a donor’s occupation would still be listed for donations of under $500, just not his or her employer. But removing this information would it make impossible to get a true picture of how much money is coming in from, say, casino employees.

Currently, the maximum contribution to Assembly candidates as well as every school board, municipal and county (except Milwaukee) candidate fall under the new threshold. This information would disappear for all of their donors.

According to Mike McCabe, executive director of  the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, 96 percent of the 862,064 donations in its “Follow the Money” database are for $500 or less.

Kevin Kennedy, director and general counsel of the state Government Accountability Board, which compiles and posts campaign finance information for state candidates, also opposes the change.

Kennedy told the Senate committee that his agency has used the employee information to identify instances in which wealthy donors were evading spending limits by illegally funneling contributions through their employees.

As for people and business getting blowback because of the candidates they support, Kennedy said, “That's part of the price of our democracy.”

The Wisconsin law that covers campaign financing begins with a declaration, which reads in part: “When the true source of support or extent of support is not fully disclosed, or when a candidate becomes overly dependent upon large private contributors, the democratic process is subjected to a potential corrupting influence.”

I agree. While businesses have legitimate concerns about operating in safety, boycotts are a respected component of our American political environment. There are laws already in place to guard against some of the intimidation and harassment Grothman cited during his defense of the bill.

Wisconsin has a proud history of transparency in government. We can continue that tradition by rejecting this attempt to restrict the public’s right to know.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Cindy Kilkenny, who blogs at Fairly Conservative and is the author of an ebook on Scott Walker, lives in Brookfield.

Last Updated on Thursday, 31 October 2013 08:45

January: Local Government Center a valuable resource

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Each election year in Wisconsin, about one-third of the local government offices on the ballot will be filled by newcomers — driven to office by a reformer’s zeal or a desire to serve their friends and neighbors. And some of them will know little about the laws that govern the conduct of local government.

That’s where the UW-Extension’s Local Government Center steps in.

For the past 21 years, the center has worked quietly behind the scenes to help neophytes learn the ropes and veteran office holders update their knowledge. Philip Freeburg, the center’s local government law educator, describes the operation as a “boots on the ground” representation of the Wisconsin Idea.

The center offers workshops, fact sheets and teleconferences on a wide range of topics: government finances, human resources, disaster management, elections and ethics. Its mission also includes expanding research and knowledge about local government education.

But no function is more important than the center’s efforts to educate local officials on the state’s Open Records and Open Meetings Laws. It frequently works in concert with associations representing the state’s cities, towns and counties.

Nor should the center be overlooked as source of information for Wisconsin citizens who want to learn about local governance, including open meetings and open records.

Given the emotional issues — sand mining and land use master plans come to mind — that frequently dot Wisconsin’s political landscape, civility can be a resource in short supply. Failure to comply with the state’s Open Meetings and Open Records Laws can exacerbate ill will between officials and citizens.

“People are keenly interested and want to learn about this,” says Freeburg when asked to discuss how citizens’ interests and local government intersect at controversial issues. “They deal with a structure completely new to them.”

To aid in its efforts, the center has created a 10-part video on the state’s Open Meeting Law. In a series of scenarios, UW students serve as would-be elected officials and government employees. They address issues ranging from proper public notice requirements for meetings to when email exchanges between elected officials might constitute a de facto meeting and violate the law.

The installments serve as a basic primer on open meetings. Scenarios are presented in easily digestible bites. (For a sample clip, see http://fyi.uwex.edu/lgcprogramstore/2012/11/open-meetings-video-teaser/.)

Although the video and a related fact sheet on Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law may seem elementary to experienced public officials and scholars, they can serve as valuable resources for new officeholders and the public, as well as high school and college students studying journalism or political science.

The center’s instructional materials can be downloaded from its website for free. There is a $20 fee for teleconferences, including a recent session on civil dialogue in local government, and related printed material.

The DVD on the Open Meetings Law can be ordered at little or no cost through educational specialists working at UW-Extension’s county offices across Wisconsin.

Last spring, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council honored the Local Government Center for its work in this area. UW-Extension Chancellor Ray Cross accepted the council’s Political Openness Award, or Popee, on the Center’s behalf.

“Whether it’s presenting in town halls, supper clubs or church basements, or developing videos and fact sheets or through telephone conversations, these educators have helped countless local officials adopt not only the letter of the law but the spirit of the law,” Cross said in accepting the award.

The center’s “Open government” portal can be found at http://lgc.uwex.edu/OpenGovt/index.html.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Council member John Dye of De Pere is a retired executive editor of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2013 13:50

October: Vukmir wrong on records law

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David D. Haynes

State Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, is making a novel legal argument to dodge a public records request. It’s one that, carried to its logical extreme, could neuter Wisconsin’s Open Records Law.

Vukmir is claiming legislative immunity from a June lawsuit filed by the liberal Center for Media and Democracy, which has alleged that she failed to turn over records related to the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC, a lightning rod for liberals, works with conservative state legislators around the country to write model legislation.

In a motion filed by state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen’s office, Vukmir claims she can’t be sued while the Legislature is in session. If her argument prevails, lawmakers could no longer be compelled to comply with open records requests. Here’s why:

Legislators recently have defined their “sessions” as beginning on the day they are sworn in and lasting until the next time they are sworn in. That would make Vukmir immune from lawsuit for the entire time she remains in office, which could be for many years.

In a statement, Vukmir writes that she has complied with CMD’s open records request “and will continue to comply with all future requests for records, including two recent requests by CMD.”

But when will she comply? And why does she believe she deserves such broad immunity? The senator ought to answer those questions.

In the past, the state has argued that the constitution provides immunity from civil proceedings only during floor sessions, says Madison attorney Susan Crawford, a former assistant attorney general. That was the state’s position during the legislative caucus scandal a decade ago, she said.

Crawford notes that the attorney general is the state officer charged with enforcing the Open Records Law and now is arguing, essentially, that the law cannot be enforced against legislators. No court could hold them accountable, as long as they are in office.

In the past, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been sued under the Open Records Law. Those legislators either acknowledged the violation and turned over the documents or fought it out in court.

The constitutional provision, and similar ones in other state constitutions, can be traced to English common law, which aimed to prevent political foes from suing their rivals as a ploy to remove them from the floor during sessions of Parliament. Legislative immunity, then, was created to protect the democratic process – not to protect the politicians. Vukmir’s tactic turns a very reasonable idea on its head.

This should not be a partisan issue: Everyone benefits from transparency in government. Rick Esenberg, a Milwaukee lawyer and blogger often allied with Republicans, recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the Vukmir/Van Hollen motion “would seem to extend the scope of the exemption provision well beyond its original meaning.”

And this broad interpretation of immunity might also lead to claims in other kinds of civil lawsuits. Some legislators serve for decades. Would they have to respond to any civil claim while in office?

Van Hollen’s actions are a disappointment. He has been a strong supporter of open government in the past. When state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, was sued by the conservative MacIver Institute over emails the senator received during the collective bargaining battle in 2011, Van Hollen declined to take the case. He should have done the same this time.

As for Vukmir, she says she has “always believed in transparency in government.”

She can demonstrate it by dropping her claim. She and Van Hollen may hope to cloak themselves in the state constitution, but in this instance it looks like a very poor fit.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. David D. Haynes is editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Last Updated on Monday, 30 September 2013 15:52

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