EDITORIAL: Disregard for right to know

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Citizens should be outraged by attack on transparency in government.

THERE HAVE BEEN a number of dubious “firsts” in Wisconsin politics the past few years, but this one is breathtaking.

State Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, has responded to an open records case by saying, in essence, she’s above the law and the courts can’t make her turn over anything.

To make it worse, Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen is agreeing with her, arguing in a Dane County Circuit Court motion that legislators are not subject to civil process while in session under Wisconsin’s Constitution. Recent practice has been for legislative sessions to last from the day members are sworn in until the next election’s winners take office, meaning no sitting legislator ever could be subject to court challenge under Vukmir’s stance. The idea that constitutional clause ever was intended to shield legislators from following the civil laws of the state is ludicrous. It’s a new low in responsiveness to the people and a new high in arrogant disregard for citizens’ right to know.

THE FACTS OF THE CASE are really irrelevant to Vukmir’s immunity claim, but here they are anyway. The liberal-leaning Center for Media and Democracy sought records from Vukmir about her ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and eventually filed suit under Wisconsin’s open records law when she failed to satisfy the request. ALEC is a conservative-leaning organization known for writing national model legislation. The organization has been known for hatching creative strategies in an effort to avoid the various states’ open records laws.

In a strange twist, Vukmir’s office attempted to duck process servers from presenting them with paperwork for the lawsuit. The matter is even being investigated over a process server’s allegation that a Vukmir aide chased him down, shoved him, and threw the paperwork at him after the summons was presented. The aide contests that version of the story, but doesn’t deny there was a confrontation.

Now Vukmir insists that she, as an elected legislator, is not subject to the civil case and therefore does not have to produce records from her office for public inspection. If that argument prevails, legislative records could be kept secret for years from the people.

THE APPROPRIATE REACTION from the people is a sputtering red rage at the depths of arrogance underlying such a claim. Republican or Democrat, these men and women serve in the people’s name. They are expected to act in the people’s interest. Thumbing their nose at the people and sneering at the principle of open government is an insult to democracy.

Remember: No public official, at any level, performing their duties ethically and in accord with the law ever needs to fear the disclosure of records generated during their time in office. Only those with something to hide — something they don’t want the people to know — have reason to fear transparency.

Wisconsin has been a national leader for many years in upholding the people’s right to know. Republican, Democrat or Independent, every citizen should be proud of that and guard its continuation. Government information, with only a handful of narrow exceptions, belongs to the people. That’s a fundamental principle of liberty.

BY MAKING SUCH a repugnant claim, Leah Vukmir throws her fitness for public office into serious question.

Likewise, as long as he remains in lockstep with Vukmir on this matter, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen casts a shadow over his own fitness to serve. The people should expect an attorney general to defend access to government information, not to conspire with secret-keepers. 

Transparency is not a partisan issue. And transparency is not an ideological issue. Transparency is a hallmark of good government.

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