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Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council names “Opee” winners

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Contact: Bill Lueders (608) 669-4712

March 8, 2017

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council names “Opee” winners

Two citizens, two journalists, one fired government worker and one small but gutsy Wisconsin newspaper are among the recipients of the 2016-17 Openness Awards, or Opees, bestowed annually by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council .

The awards, announced in advance of national Sunshine Week (sunshineweek.org), March 12-18, recognize extraordinary achievement in the cause of open government. This is the 11th consecutive year that awards have been given.

“Now, more than ever, protecting Wisconsin’s traditions of open government depends on the courage and initiative of individuals,” said Bill Lueders, council president. “We saw a good deal of that in 2016.”

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

The winners will be invited to receive their awards at the seventh annual Wisconsin Watchdog Awards Dinner in Madison on Thursday, March 30. The event is presented jointly by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism , Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and the Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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

Citizen Openness Award (“Copee”): Tie: John Krueger, Lance Fena

Krueger, an Appleton parent, joined with the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty in suing

the Appleton Area School District for not letting him attend meetings of a committee formed in response to his curricula-related concerns. That case is now being decided by the state Supreme Court. Fena is the Milton School District resident

who asserted his right to make a video recording at a school board meeting, as the law expressly allows. The board not only backed down after initially adjourning to avoid being filmed, it subsequently began live-streaming its proceedings.

Media Openness Award (“Mopee”): New Richmond News

It took more than three years, but this small newspaper in St. Croix County won its case challenging wholesale records redactions by law enforcement agencies all around the state. A state appeals court in May affirmed that local officials were overreacting to a 2012 federal court ruling in the amount of driver-license-related information they have been withholding. Issues remain but the New Richmond News brought a measure of clarity to what had been chaos.

Political Openness Award (“Popee”): Cory Mason

This Democratic lawmaker from Racine continues his efforts to end the ability of legislative party caucuses to meet in secret, but revelations that GOP lawmakers in 2011 used this secrecy to gleefully attack voting rights make the issue more urgent than ever. Mason also broke ranks with some members of his party last year to make the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association subject to state openness laws, and before that opposed efforts to reduce transparency of campaign donors and the attempt to gut the open records law through the state budget.

Open Records Scoop of the Year: Tie: Katelyn Ferral, Patrick Marley

In what was a banner year for reporting that drew on public records, we picked two major projects involving threats to vulnerable populations. Ferral, of The Capital Times, exposed the dismal conditions at a state veterans facility in King, Wisconsin; the Legislature ordered an audit, the federal government issued citations, and the head of the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs resigned. Marley and other Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters documented shocking abuses at two state juvenile prisons; the state has increased training and oversight, and federal authorities are looking into possible indictments and civil rights prosecutions.

Whistleblower of the Year (“Whoopee”): Ronald Klym

This federal employee, a long-time senior legal assistant for the administrative law judges who grant or deny Social Security benefits, blew the whistle on what Watchdog.org, which reported his story, called “incompetence, misconduct and long case delays” at a Milwaukee disability office. Klym was allegedly subjected to additional work assignments, unreasonable deadlines and unjustified suspensions; in August, he was fired . “Absolutely. I am being punished because I am a whistleblower,” he said at the time. Now he’s being honored for it.

No Friend of Openness (“Nopee”): The Wisconsin Department of Corrections

Among an unfortunately broad array of candidates, no other state agency has compiled such a bleak record on openness. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in June catalogued an array of DOC denials and delays, including those concerning the state’s troubled juvenile prisons. In September, the agency proceeded with a plan to immediately destroy training videos after earlier spiking plans to do so. And DOC Secretary Ed Wall was fired for writing to another state official at home with the express goal of avoiding the open records law. The DOC’s awesome power to deprive people of liberty must be matched with a strong commitment to transparency. We’re waiting.

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March: Keep public notices in print

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For more than two centuries, governments in this country have paid newspapers to publish public notices about the actions of government.

But now, Wisconsin state legislators are circulating a pair of bills, AB70 and SB42, that aim to take public notices out of newspapers and put them instead on government websites.

It’s a bad idea that would harm transparency, democracy and public trust.

Without a third-party, independent source providing the information, there is no accountability, no checks and balances to make sure that government is posting all the public notices it is required by law to post.

Most Wisconsin residents continue to rely on the printed newspaper for information about their local elected governments, as they have for decades.

For those who choose not to use computers, it remains the best source.

For those who do use computers, there’s already an invaluable resource at your fingertips.

Since 2005, newspapers in Wisconsin have been digitally archiving every public notice published in every newspaper in our state every day. Today, a decade of this information is available free of charge on this website: www.WisconsinPublicNotices.org.

Wisconsin newspapers collect and archive this information as a public service. The database is very user-friendly—searchable by city, county, newspaper, zip code and keyword. Businesses throughout the state use this website to learn about projects they may wish to bid on. Just ask a contractor how efficient it would be to have to log in daily to the website of every local government in Wisconsin.

The amount charged by newspapers for publishing public notices is regulated by the state Department of Administration. The rates charged barely cover the cost of processing and printing the information. It’s a good deal for taxpayers.

State law prescribes even the typeface and font size of these notices to help the DOA cut down on its administrative workload. The newspapers agreed to this standardization, and the Wisconsin Legislature approved it without opposition in 2012.

And government is not the sole bearer of the cost of publishing legal notices. In many cases, the cost is passed along by the government agency to those seeking government action.

As Beth Bennett, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, has testified: “A notice for a new license is passed along to the new licensee. Foreclosure notices are assumed by the banks and the attorneys handling the foreclosure. Court notices are passed along by the courts to the subject of the legal matter; and in many instances, public notices are required to be placed by John Q. Citizen who pays directly for the publication of the notice.”

Taking public notices out of newspapers is just another attempt by government officials to curb transparency in Wisconsin. It’s a bad move, and the people of Wisconsin should push back against it.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Rusty Cunningham is executive editor of the La Crosse Tribune.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 01 March 2017 08:38

February: Trump raises stakes for press, public

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Two days before the new president’s inauguration, the Society of Professional Journalists and dozens of other media and government transparency groups sent a letter asking Donald Trump for a meeting to discuss his administration’s relationship with the press.

Among other things, the groups wanted Trump to affirm his commitment to the First Amendment, assure media access to his presidential activities, and allow expert government employees to talk to the media rather than muzzle them in favor of public relations officials.

Trump has yet to respond.

However, the new administration issued orders to employees of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture not to convey information to the media or public. Officials also imposed a news blackout at the Department of Transportation.

Meanwhile, Trump claimed, with no evidence, that up to five million illegal voters participated in the election; his White House spokeswoman used the term “alternative facts” to explain false claims that Trump’s inauguration audience was the largest ever; and chief strategist Steve Bannon called the news media an “opposition party” that should “keep its mouth shut”—views that Trump himself later endorsed.

All this happened within Trump’s first two weeks in office.

Where does that leave us, as members of the press and guardians of your right to know what government is doing?

First, we must report on official efforts to withhold information from the public—which is, after all, footing the bill for government. On day one, the new administration scrubbed references to climate change from the EPA website (echoing similar actions by Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources and Public Service Commission). Expect more of the same.

Second, we must continue to be vigilant in the face of Trump’s tendency, first as a candidate and now as president, to engage in bombast and exaggeration. It is our duty to expose unprovable, and outright false, claims.

Third, we must guard against politicians’ unwillingness to subject their actions to media scrutiny. It is our job to disclose what the administration is doing, even in the face of efforts to bypass the traditional White House press corps.

As law professors RonNell Andersen Jones and Sonja R. West recently wrote in The New York Times, while the First Amendment prohibits government censorship and offers protection against lawsuits, journalists have few constitutional rights to government documents and sources, or from being maligned by people in power. Trump, they noted, appears set on blowing up the “mutually dependent” relationships the White House press corps has had with presidential administrations from both parties.

“This is why we should be alarmed when Mr. Trump, defying tradition, vilifies media institutions, attacks reporters by name and refuses to take questions from those whose coverage he dislikes,” they wrote.

It’s not just about the media. It’s about your right to know. To quote Jones and West, “Like so much of our democracy, the freedom of the press is only as strong as we, the public, demand it to be.”

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Council member Mark Pitsch is an assistant city editor at the Wisconsin State Journal and president of the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 01 February 2017 09:55

Newsmaker Luncheon to Feature Open Government Traveling Show

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The Milwaukee Press Club will host the Open Government Traveling Show – a panel discussion about the Wisconsin open meetings and open records laws – at a Newsmaker Luncheon on Wednesday, March 15, 2017 as part of the national celebration of open government known as Sunshine Week.

The public is invited to attend the event from 11:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Newsroom Pub in downtown Milwaukee at 137 E. Wells St.

The Open Government Traveling Show is presented by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and SPJ-Madison. It features a brief tutorial on the state’s open meetings and records laws and examples of how the media, the public and advocates use the law.

The panel includes:
• April Barker, open government expert and an attorney with the law firm Schott, Bublitz & Engel, s.c. based in Waukesha.

• Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, a national watchdog group that investigates and exposes the influence of on public policy.

• Tom Kamenick, deputy counsel and open government specialist with the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which seeks to advance the public interest in the rule of law, individual liberty, constitutional government and a robust civil society.

• Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and a veteran Wisconsin journalist, now managing editor of The Progressive Magazine.

• Mark Pitsch, president of the SPJ-Madison and an assistant city editor at the Wisconsin State Journal.

For more information or to register for this event visit this Milwaukee Press Club page.


January: Public’s trust was abused over police videos

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On Sunday, August 14, after a night of unrest prompted by the fatal police shooting of a black man, Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn said his review of body camera video of the incident proved the officer had acted appropriately.

“The individual did turn toward the officer with a firearm in his hand,” Flynn stated, later saying the man, 23-year-old Sylville Smith, “was raising up with” the gun.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said a still photo he was shown from the video “demonstrates, without question, that (Smith) had a gun in his hand.” In fact, Barrett declared , the officer “ordered that individual to drop his gun, the individual did not drop his gun.”

This purportedly exculpatory video itself was not promptly released, despite requests from Barrett and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker that this occur. It still has not been released. But we know now that public officials did not give an accurate account of what it shows.

We know that because, in mid-December, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm filed criminal charges against Dominique Heaggan-Brown, the former Milwaukee police officer who killed Smith. (Heaggan-Brown was fired over an alleged sexual assault shortly after the shooting.)

According to the criminal complaint charging the officer with first-degree reckless homicide, Smith held a gun as the officer fired his first shot. Smith, struck in the arm, pitched the gun over a fence and fell to the ground. The officer then fired a second, fatal shot to Smith’s chest.

“A review of the body camera video from (both officers at the scene) confirms that at the time of the second shot, Smith was unarmed and had his hands near his head,” the complaint says.

A 2014 state law governing investigations of police shootings requires that gathered materials be released if a decision is made not to file charges. The law is otherwise silent as to whether and when these materials are released.

Barrett has renewed his call for release, while Flynn has weighed in against this. Chisholm told me his office will not release this evidence prior to its use in a criminal proceeding.

In this case, I believe, it is already too late to restore confidence in the integrity of the process. Flynn’s representations about the video were at best misleading, and Barrett’s statements suggest he was misled, as was the public.

The whole point of outfitting police with cameras, at taxpayer expense, is to ensure truthfulness and enhance accountability. That did not happen here. And many more months may pass before the video is released.

Other jurisdictions have more enlightened policies. In Chicago, for instance, videos of police shootings are normallyreleased within 60 days, and posted online.

In the legislative session that begins in January, there will likely be renewed efforts to establish consistent state policies regarding police body cameras; a bill to do so in the last session went nowhere.

Now is the time, in the wake of this regrettable case, for the citizens of Wisconsin to insist that the video records they are paying for are not kept secret, or used to mislead them.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Bill Lueders is the group’s president.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 28 December 2016 13:08

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