PRESS EDITORIAL: Biggest spending arm of city government should be more open

Bill Schanen III

The Port Washington Police and Commission oversees the single largest expenditure of taxpayer money in the city operating budget. Some of its members are reluctant to make it easier for taxpayers to see more of the details of how this annual appropriation of more than $4 million is spent each year.

Ald. Dan Benning has proposed that the commission make its actions more transparent to the public by holding its meetings at City Hall rather than the Police Department, televising the sessions with the closed circuit TV system used at Common Council meetings and posting information packets online.

The idea did not go over well at the commission’s April 12 meeting. One member expressed outright hostility to increasing openness as proposed by Benning. Others suggested it would not be appropriate for all of the information the panel is given to be shown to the public.

The five-member appointed commission has authority, with approval by the Common Council, over the spending of more than 40% of the $10 million city operating budget in 2021. Expenditures for the Public Works Department are a distant second at 23% of the budget.

The outsized impact of police and fire spending on city taxes only adds to the commission’s obligation to maximum transparency. Yet commission member Jennifer Clearwater objected to Benning’s proposal, apparently on the grounds that the public might not be bright enough to understand the information the commission deals with. “I think there’s a level of maturity you need to have a handle on it,” she said.

Other members said some of information included with meeting agendas, such as items relating to ambulance calls, is too “sensitive” to post online. Those concerns are understandable, but the commission does not get to decide what information the public is allowed to see. The Wisconsin Open Records Law sets strict standards for making government information available to the citizenry.

In fact, almost all of the information to which commission members referred is available now to any citizen who has the time and gumption to dig for it—if necessary, by filing an open records request.

The point of Benning’s proposal is to make it easier for citizens to be informed about what this important arm of their city government is doing. Moving monthly meetings to City Hall would be good first step. This, after all, is the seat of the city government. People should not have go to police headquarters to observe their appointed representatives dealing with city business.

The Police and Fire Commission should welcome the opportunity to make citizens better informed about their work as outlined in  Benning’s proposal. 

To be clear, the commission has not been abusing either the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law or the Open Records Law. The closed sessions it holds from time to time are qualified exemptions under the meetings statute and there has been no reason to believe documents related to their actions have not been maintained as required by the records law. 

It is noteworthy too that commission members have been forthcoming with the Ozaukee Press reporter who attends their meetings and informs the public about their actions through this newspaper. (Ozaukee Press will, of course, continue to report in detail about commission meetings and actions whether or not the meetings are televised.)

The commission would do well to follow the lead of one of its members, Jim Biever, who said of the Benning proposal, “There’s nothing to hide. I can see trying it for a little while.” He added the accurate observation that “for the average person, I think it would be like watching grass grow.”

The commission should adopt the openness improvements, including televised meetings, keeping in mind that, as Biever predicted, they aren’t going to be the most popular Monday night TV fare. 


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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