Not what he says, but what he does

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Citizens’ vigilance is required to preserve open government.

FILE THIS ONE in the category of “watch what he does, not what he says.”

For national “Sunshine Week” — a period designated to recognize the cause of transparency and openness in government — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker put out a press release saying he was ordering state agencies to improve access to public records.

He more or less said the same thing at the same time last year, but independent compliance checks by the press found long time lags in dealing with straightforward requests to access records.

MOST PEOPLE REMEMBER the Fourth of July ambush when Walker, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and the Republican majority on the Joint Finance Committee tried to gut Wisconsin’s nationally acclaimed Public Records Law. Without the immediate and vocal opposition of good-government advocates from the left, the right and the center a veil of secrecy would have descended on Wisconsin.

Likewise, government watchers will remember when the governor’s office tried to quietly change state policy in regards to “transitory records” to allow officials to destroy a wide array of documents.

And many will remember the governor’s office refusing to turn over records, claiming a privilege for documents involved in “deliberations” — despite the fact no such exemption exists in Wisconsin law. And never should, because a “deliberations” exemption would cover pretty much everything but the final text of an ordinance or law.

This year’s budget submitted by the governor, as we’ve reported, also includes a provision that would allow municipalities and school districts to no longer publish proceedings records in newspapers.

THAT’S THE RECORD of the governor’s time in office on the topic of transparency and openness. Readers can make up their own minds whether that could be called a good record.

We hope he means what he has said for Sunshine Week. We hope his administration and the legislative majority have had a change of heart and Wisconsin government will re-commit to the kind of openness intended in the Public Records Law, which states all records carry “a presumption of complete public access” and should be provided to citizens “as soon as practicable and without delay.”

But we’re taking nothing for granted.

A FINAL WORD: While we’re on the topic of Sunshine Week being marked nationally, it is appropriate to say why transparency and openness should matter to you, the citizen. We understand that, to the casual observer, this may seem like a topic constantly being fought over by media and politicians. It might be easy to conclude it’s just inside baseball, and has no particular relevance to regular folks. We urge you: Do not make that mistake.

Laws governing access to government proceedings and records are not written in a way to grant privileges to reporters. Journalists have exactly the same rights of every citizen, no more and no less. Citizens may be surprised to know journalists always have resisted any efforts by legal authorities to grant reporters special considerations, for this simple reason: Journalists are not, and do not wish to be, insiders playing cozy with government officials. We cultivate being outsiders — to reflect everyday citizens. So if you ever find yourself thinking, “That reporter is just being nosy and (City Hall/School Board/Legislator) ought to just tell ‘em to stick it,” remember this — what you are really suggesting is your right to know what government is doing should be restricted. The Founders thought government ought to answer to the people. That means the people must be able to keep a close eye on politicians and bureaucrats. If America ever loses that access and ability ... well, it won’t be America anymore.

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