What do we want? Open government reform. When do we want it? Not now. | WisCommunity

What do we want? Open government reform. When do we want it? Not now.

I am looking at the current agenda for the of the Lodi School Board (in whose district I reside). I see that it has a closed session scheduled for the first hour of the meeting under a grab bag listing of items that include “review minutes of regular meeting”, “review resignations and retirements,” and “review staff-2015-16.”

I went back a year and found the board has been doing this at every regular meeting with a catch-all closed session agenda with slight variations from month to month.

Besides being legally suspect the construction of this agenda has another result. It pretty much discourages any citizens from attending the meetings. Being told to leave for an hour and come back is a buzzkill.

We are now living in an atmosphere in which open government subject to a vigorous open meetings and open records law seems like a quaint and outdated custom. We have the trifecta of the Governor, the legislature and the State Supreme Court heavily in favor of limiting citizen access to the operations of its elected and unelected representatives. Why Republicans are always behind these efforts will remain an eternal mystery to me.

Don’t get me started on the recent budget bill rider that would have repealed the records law but at the same time let’s not forget the Supreme Court’s decision that exempted the state legislature from the open meetings law as a result of the Act 10 debacle.

Then there is the recent. This case touched upon the records and meetings and laws and both came out the losers. The local paper wanted to know the vote that reopened a search for a new police chief. Only after the case went to court did the commission reveal it didn’t keep a record of the vote and couldn’t remember who voted for what. The court found no fault with that.  So there. Amnesia is now a defense. Given the confusing factual situation in this case it could be a one-off but my reading of the decision is the law covering records of closed sessions is now even murkier than it was before.

Policing of closed sessions is already problematic. Because what exactly goes on behind closed doors is only known by the participants and they aren’t talking. It depends entirely on the integrity and legal knowledge of those involved. Some things can be discerned from the agenda. For example, the Lodi School Board is clearly violating the law by discussing a review of minutes of a regular meeting behind closed doors but other items on the agenda depend entirely on the context of the discussion.

It’s clear that our open government laws need updating. It is also clear this legislature and governor cannot be trusted to do it so I will make my recommendations and put them in a sealed envelope to be opened upon the election of an enlightened state government.

  1. Codify the existing body of case law. The law is substantially unchanged since the 1970’s and relies on court rulings for the most part. Picking and choosing should be done with a view to transparency. This would limit the ability of future courts to meddle with the law.

  2. Require video recording of all meetings subject to the law. This includes closed sessions. The time has come for this. The technology is there.  Plus there would be something “discoverable” in the event of litigation.

  3. Limit the fees custodians can charge. As it stands custodians can charge copying fees and search fees. Copying fees are limited to the cost of making a photocopy, typically 15 or 25 cents, but we now live in a digital world. Clicking a mouse a few times does not incur any expense. Electronic copies should be the default at no charge. Back in my reporting days I had record custodians deliberately print out digitized records so they could rack up a bill. Another one charged me $700 for their attorney’s time to make redactions. They knew they would never collect but that doesn’t stop them from trying.  The law should be clarified enough to end this kind of horseshit. There is also the governing the copying of court records. Clerks of Court rely heavily on the stiff fees they are authorized to charge for copying court records, typically $1.25 a page. However you can get around that fee now with a smart phone by making your own electronic copy. The AG opinion allows a court clerk to prohibit this practice and insist you pay them to make paper copies. I don’t know how widespread this prohibition is but it needs to be deep-sixed and court clerks can find some other way to pad their budgets.

  4. Pass a constitutional amendment to subject the state legislature to the open meetings law.

  5. Put the records and meetings law into an administrative law mechanism. As it stands now one must file a complaint with the local district attorney and hope that he or she will get around to it someday or file a civil suit. Both are cumbersome and expensive procedures. Under an administrative review process a citizen would fill out a form delineating their complaint and an administrative law judge would then forward it to the authority who is the target of the complaint for a response. Based on that the judge would determine if the complaint is merited. If not, end of story. If there is merit the judge would then hold a hearing with the powers to subpoena witnesses and documents and issue a decision. Both sides would still retain the right of judicial review. This will require funding of course.

  6. Expand the reach of the law into charter and voucher schools. Since they are supported by taxpayers they should be held accountable.

But, like I said, this will all have to wait until there is a change in the political weather.


September 10, 2015 - 1:58pm