Sunshine Week, this week’s national observance of efforts to assert the public’s right to know what its government is doing, brought a sunny news release from Gov. Scott Walker’s office. It announced that Wisconsin’s chief executive was issuing an executive order “to promote open and transparent government through the implementation of best practices and performance dashboards.”
Translated from trendy business jargon to plain English, it seems the order essentially directs state agencies to respond to public records requests from citizens and the press in a timely and efficient manner.
That is what the law requires.
Wisconsin has laws mandating that government records be available to the public and government meetings be open to the public. Even so, the movement to keep government open to scrutiny is a work in progress, as the governor himself made clear last summer when he and Republican leaders of the Legislature attempted—in secret, of course—to severely weaken the open records law.
The attempt was abandoned in the face of a furious public response. Other moves to withhold records, including officials’ emails, colored the Walker administration as hostile to transparent government.
The “Sunshine Week initiatives” referred to in the news release may be a PR initiative to change that image. If they are also a sincere effort to improve access to government records, the governor will deserve any public approval that comes from it.
One thing is certain about the so-called sunshine laws based on the public’s right to know: Without them government officials would be less accountable to the people.
The appeal of managing public affairs without the aggravation of the public watching is difficult to resist, judging from the frequency with which it is attempted at all levels of government. Examples abound in the Obama administration, Congress, and state and local governments.
Public scrutiny, of course, makes government officials’ jobs harder. The frustrating complaints, competing demands and tedious intrusions by citizens, not to mention pesky journalists, all interfere with the smooth execution of the business of government. And that is as it should be. Because government is not a business; it is not a well-oiled machine. Democratic government is a messy operation.
In the councils, boards and commissions of Ozaukee County, when conflicts with Wisconsin’s open government laws occur they often take the form of misuse of exceptions to the open meetings law. The law allows closed meetings in narrowly defined instances involving government personnel and negotiating purchases or contracts. Whether through the intent of officials or faulty advice from ill-informed legal counsel, the exemptions are sometimes wrongly applied and matters that affect the public in important ways are settled behind closed doors.
Even when exceptions apply and closed meetings would be legal, officials who are weighing whether to close the doors should keep in mind that shutting out the public contributes to taxpayer cynicism and distrust of government.
In the City of Port Washington, no fewer than four issues are currently being dealt with by the Common Council in meetings from which the public is excluded. Three of them involve land owned by the public.
Citizens expect to hear and see their representatives debate issues vigorously, not to cast unanimous votes ratifying agreements made in private sessions. Disagreement among officials and divided votes in public forums are signs of a healthy democracy.
That’s what the public wants to see on the government’s “performance dashboard.”