Protect the right, or you'll lose it

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Transparency laws are intended to keep government open and responsive.

A FEW DAYS AGO we reported on a letter sent by the newspaper's editor to School District of Beloit Board of Education President Laurie Endres. The letter addressed concerns about whether the board may have discussed matters in a closed-door session that were inappropriate under the narrow exemptions of the Wisconsin's Open Meetings Law.

The letter asked the board to review its practices and be pro-active in voluntarily complying with provisions of the Open Meetings Law. The state statute provides enforcement mechanisms. Citizens can file complaints with the Rock County District Attorney's office, which has the authority to investigate and, if violations are discovered, can seek monetary forfeitures from each individual member of a governing board.

HERE'S WHY THE Beloit Daily News did not ask the DA to investigate. We're more interested in compliance than punishment. Hopefully, the issue will resolve itself by the board taking more care going forward to be in full accord with statutory provisions.

Likewise, it is hoped drawing attention in this manner to the provisions of the Open Meetings Law will remind members of all public bodies that they are subject to transparency statutes. Familiarity with the laws, and commitment to obeying them, should be an integral part of service on any public governing body.

We will keep our eyes and ears open, and if inappropriate activities occur the newspaper may seek intervention from the district attorney in the future. And we would remind all citizens this is not some right reserved for newspaper journalists. Each citizen has the right to challenge public bodies and seek investigation if it appears a violation has occurred.

LOOK, WE KNOW, some people may believe this is media nitpicking. For lay persons elected to governing bodies, it's not always easy to avoid getting sideways with the intricacies of the Open Meetings Law and the Public Records Law.

The best way, in our view, is to operate from the default position that all discussions should take place in open session, with every proposal to close the door triggering heightened scrutiny. And, once the door is closed, the default position should require scrupulous attention to keeping all discussion strictly on the noticed topic without any tolerance for straying into other subject matter.

We ask readers never to lose sight that transparency laws were not adopted with the objective of posing a nuisance for public officials and agencies. The laws exist to establish the principle that all free citizens in a democracy have the right to know and examine public business, with only very narrow exceptions.

Like any other right, it's protect it or lose it. We choose to protect it, and hope you do, too.

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