Whenever officials try to justify secrecy, consider your rights in jeopardy.
With two vacancies to be filled on the Rock County Board of Supervisors, the process by which Chair Richard Bostwick arrives at appointments is being questioned.
Staff Writer Austin Montgomery’s fine reporting established that a selection committee, which operates in secret without public access, is key to the process.
The county’s lawyer, Corporation Counsel Richard Greenlee, argues there’s nothing wrong with that because the selection committee is not subject to Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law. Good government advocates think otherwise.
Here’s the reality of how the law works in practice: Government officials can make their interpretations and operate as they wish until a judge says they can’t. It costs a lot of money to challenge those official positions in court. Few can afford to do so. Don’t think government officials are unaware of that financial disincentive.
Thus, the key question also is the most obvious. Why would officials want to keep the public out? The government doesn’t belong to the temporary occupants of any given position. It belongs to the people. And it’s hard to think of a situation where the people justifiably should be shut out of a process aimed at deciding who will represent them on a government body.
It’s also worth noting that Wisconsin’s open government laws seldom require matters to be kept from the people. Even where statutory exceptions clearly permit closure, it's normally a choice left up to the elected leadership.
Freedoms rarely disappear with a sudden lurch, but rather by the drip-drip-drip erosion of rights.
So to the county chair, supervisors and administrators, we’d like to hear less talk about legal justifications for secrecy and more about the virtues of the people’s right to know.
Some things may be legal. That doesn’t mean they’re right.