Holding office, keeping secrets

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For too many officials, covering one's behind trumps transparency.

A FEW WEEKS AGO a group of African American citizens including Dennis Baskin, a former Beloit School Board member, brought a protest to a board meeting and laid out a list of grievances. Essentially, the board was being accused of presiding over a district rife with racial discrimination issues.

Shortly thereafter, the board was presented with an internal document claiming specific bias allegations from one or more employees. The board told its law firm to engage an independent investigator to determine the merits of the complaints. The last time the board ordered legal investigations taxpayers were billed more than $90,000.

The Beloit Daily News, under Wisconsin's Public Records Law, filed a legal request for the document containing allegations of discrimination. The board refused, stating "the public's right to inspect the requested record is outweighed by the public's interest in nondisclosure ..."

LET'S RESTATE THAT response in the interest of truthfulness: "The public's right to inspect the requested record is outweighed by board members' interest in keeping it secret."

Something happens to people when they are elected to a governing body.

When elections roll around, Beloit Daily News journalists spend time interviewing all candidates. One of the questions always asked is whether the individual seeking office is committed to transparency, to trusting the people with truth and accurate information. We have yet to hear a candidate say, "No, I'm not. It's nobody's business what we do in government."

But when candidates become office-holders they routinely change. Government information becomes theirs, not the people's. It's common practice on elective bodies to work with lawyers - paid for with your money - to come up with arguments why information needs to be kept away from you. The nature of lawyering is simple: Who writes the paycheck? The lawyer's client is the elected body, not the people, and if the officials want to block you from accessing information then that's the argument they'll make. Couched, of course, in flowing legal language about why you're better off not knowing.

SO LET'S REVIEW Wisconsin's Public Records Law and its intent. In its "Declaration of Policy," the law states: "(This statute) shall be construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access ... The denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied."

The law sets forth very narrow exemptions to identify when that "exceptional case" reference may apply. But the key word is "may." In most instances, records custodians are not prohibited from releasing information to the public. Rather, they are admonished to perform a "balancing test," to determine if applying the narrow guidelines of an exemption outweigh the public's interest in transparency. The "Declaration of Policy" leaves no doubt such balancing tests are intended to face a very high bar indeed for determining the people should be blocked from accessing information.

We'll put it bluntly. Based on many years of observing how public officials react toward transparency once in office, the public's right to know runs a distant second to their own interest in covering their behinds. And they are never shy about using your money to hire lawyers in that service.

There is no reason - legal or otherwise - not to release the details of a complaint accusing the people's school district of employment discrimination. This has nothing to do with the public interest. This is all about board members' interest.

A FINAL WORD: The stain of secrecy is spreading. The Wisconsin Supreme Court - which should be a lion in defense of the people's right to know - "intends to decide whether the state court system is subject to the open records law," according to a spokesman. The alarming nature of that sentence cannot be overstated. Tyranny starts with the idea that government "rights" supersede the people's rights. Once lost, freedom of information structure will be much harder to rebuild. The price of liberty is vigilance. Disengage at your own risk.

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