Government secret-keepers stay busy in Wisconsin.
FOR GOVERNMENT to be “of the people, by the people, for the people,” it must first be transparent to the people. And that takes constant vigilance because, commonly, agents of government prefer to be anything but transparent.
There’s something in the air they breathe in government buildings which apparently persuades those who work there that information should belong to them, not to the public.
Consider a few situations and disputes that illustrate the point.
IN A CASE involving the Juneau County Star-Times the Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the newspaper’s efforts to access information held by third-party contractors working on behalf of a government agency. In summary, an insurance company holding a policy for Juneau County hired lawyers to represent the county and the company’s interests in a legal matter. The newspaper sought documents related to the case and the bills. Only limited, redacted information was released along with a claim the lawyers were working for the private insurance company, not the public county government. The paper sued.
The Supreme Court majority ruled in favor of the Star-Times, upholding the concept that the lawyers and the insurer were acting on behalf of the people.
The use of private-sector contractors to conduct business related to government functions is rising. In fact, the most recent report from Madison indicates a 5 percent increase in contracting expenses of state agencies and the UW system over the past year. That has given rise to disputes over control of records relating to the work — whether such records belong to the public or a private contractor accustomed to keeping documents confidential. The court’s ruling comes down on the side of openness — if the work is for government, the records should be accessible.
LAST YEAR, THE Milwaukee Journal Sentinel won a lengthy court battle over excessive costs for obtaining records. The Milwaukee case revealed a growing strategy among government agencies to raise barriers to access, by piling on costs thereby making documents financially prohibitive for requesters. Agencies were claiming extensive work to review and redact information, then claiming all sorts of costs related to that process, and presenting requesters with bills for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
The Supreme Court saw through the ruse and said Wisconsin law did not allow extra charges to be piled on for reviewing information that should be available to the public. Adding high costs, the court concluded, was the next thing to denying access altogether to public information.
Now the League of Wisconsin Municipalities is pushing the legislature to overrule the court. The January 2013 issue of The Municipality carries this item: “Individual legislators or the governor have already agreed to introduce the following items on our agenda (including): Allow municipalities to charge record requesters the cost of deleting confidential parts of requested records.”
The real purpose: Limit access by pricing out the public.
AS ALWAYS, we recognize some think this is just a bunch of nosy reporters fighting with government secret-keepers and it really has nothing to do with everyday folks. We respect your right to think that way.
But we’ll remind readers that reporters’ rights are your rights. We have no special privileges. When information that’s supposed to be open is instead swept behind closed doors it is not just reporters who lose access. You and every other citizen lose access to the actions of your government, to what is being done in your name.
In countries that are not free and self-governing, that is common — the people have no right to know, no right to challenge.
In a country founded on the experiment of individual liberty and sovereignty of the people, freedom fades when the shroud of secrecy descends over those governing in their name.
The press will keep fighting for the public’s access to government information. We don’t ask you to roll up your sleeves and get in the fight. We do hope you’re on our side — because it’s your side, too.