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Home Your Right to Know columns March: Opee Awards toast open government

March: Opee Awards toast open government

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Sunshine Week, a national celebration of the ideal (if not always the practice) of openness in government, was launched in 2005 and is already a tradition. This year it's set for March 13-19.

In connection with this event, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is giving its fifth annual “Opee” Awards to those who've made their mark on open government here. Some recipients will be feted at the first Wisconsin Watchdog Awards Dinner in Madison on April 20, co-sponsored by the council and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

For advocates of open government, this was a mixed year: Wisconsin became the 39th state to adopt a law protecting media outlets that promise confidentiality to whistleblowers. But the state Supreme Court curtailed access to some employee e-mails, and efforts are ongoing to shut down public access to online court records.

The Opees are awarded in various categories, including a new one for whistleblowers. The winners are:

Political Openness Advocates of the Year (the “Popee”):
State Rep. Joe Parisi and former state Sen. Pat Kreitlow. In April, after ten months of hard work, this pair of Democratic lawmakers got the state Legislature to pass, with broad bipartisan support, the Whistleblower Protection Act. Cases where this comes into play are rare in Wisconsin, but having this protection will make it easier for media outlets to fulfill their watchdog role.

Citizen Openness Advocate of the Year (the “Copee”): Don Bubolz. This resident of Vesper, Wisconsin, wondered how much time Wisconsin Rapids teachers spent sending personal e-mails, and made a records request to find out. The teachers resisted, sending the case all the way to the state Supreme Court. And while the court ruled that these records can in most cases be withheld, mandating a burdensome and costly new review process, it was a battle worth joining and Bubolz stayed with it every step of the way.

Media Openness Advocate of the Year (the “Mopee”): Ryan Foley. No one did more last year to reaffirm the value of access to public records than this Associated Press reporter – especially his stories on Calumet County District Attorney Ken Kratz's boorish and unethical behavior. Kratz got booted from office and Ryan, sadly, left to work for the AP in Iowa.

Open Records Scoop of the Year (the “Scoopee”): Christine Won. This Racine Journal Times reporter used public records to track $4,900 in payments to a Caledonia police officer's family and friends, in amounts just under the threshold for tax reporting, for work on squad cars. The officer was suspended and the police chief abruptly retired.

No Friend of Openness Award (the “Nopee”): Scott Southworth. The district attorney of Juneau County withheld many of the records sought by a political advocacy group and The Capital Times of Madison, drawing a lawsuit by the group, One Wisconsin Now (OWN). Southworth admitted the violation and agreed to pay $8,950 in legal fees and damages – then disingenuously blamed OWN for the waste of tax dollars he caused.

Whistleblower of the Year (the “Whoopee”): Concerned Citizen. Raquel Rutledge of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel won several major prizes in 2010, including a Pulitzer, for her series on fraud in a state childcare program. It all started when Concerned Citizen, having failed to get supervisors to care, went to the press, at great personal and professional risk. Rutledge calls CC “the bravest, most principled person I've encountered” and says her series – which spurred reforms that have already saved the state more than $100 million – would have not otherwise been done.

We congratulate our award winners – except, of course, for Southworth, who we hope learns to have more respect for the state's laws and traditions of openness.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), dedicated to open meetings and open records. Bill Lueders is the group’s president. For more information on Sunshine Week, see sunshineweek.org.