Open Records

BY Michael Mentzer

Sometimes it’s just impossible to let the world go by without saying something. For me, for what it’s worth, this is one those times.

The $76 billion state biennial budget has been approved after months of debate, infighting, backstabbing, trickery and deceit. Gov. Scott Walker used his veto pen liberally, signed the document, and then resumed what really matters to him for the immediate future — running for the presidency.

I’d like to say there were uplifting examples of statesmanship and non-partisanship that were accomplished to benefit Wisconsin and those who live in this wonderful part of the world. Sad to say, I don’t believe statesmanship and altruistic values played that big of a role in the new state budget for a number of those we elect to the state Assembly and state Senate.

And now it’s August. Attention turns to other things. The corn crop appears to be magnificent. In a state where football is king, pigskin mania is just around the corner. A new school year looms. The last days of summer break are clicking away.

It’s easy to forget what happened in the state budget process the past few months. It’s convenient to just move along, let political nature take its course and hope for the best.

That would be a huge oversight, a massive mistake.

Sacred principles under attack
Lest we forget, during the state budget process, two sacred principles of Wisconsin life were threatened, insulted, trashed, thrown under the bus …take your pick.

The two sacred principles are the Wisconsin Idea and the Wisconsin Open Records Law. Certainly, there were other treasured concepts and agencies that were targeted in the budget — public education, the University of Wisconsin System, the Department of Natural Resources, the environment in general, the Stewardship fund and historic site preservation in particular, Senior Care and care of the disabled — but the Wisconsin Idea and open government are two Wisconsin principles that should never be trifled with. They define our state and they define us as a people.

Early on in the budget process, thanks to the vigilance of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other newspapers and media who locked in on the fray, it was discovered that language drafted in the proposed state budget called for changes in the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin and its cornerstone concept known as the Wisconsin Idea. It was as close to blasphemy as is possible in the temporal order of things.

In essence, the Wisconsin Idea stresses that the mission of the UW System is to improve the human condition, enhance people’s overall lives, search for truth for truth’s sake, reach out with knowledge to the people of the state, conduct research and provide public service.

The proposed budget — the governor’s proposal, basically the Republican proposal — eliminated key aspects of the Wisconsin Idea and replaced them with purely economic terms, as if money trumps all.

The governor eventually chalked up the furor about the changes in the Wisconsin Idea to a “drafting error.” Come on! That is as far-fetched as it gets. It would have much more credible to just say, “Oops, you got us red-handed on that one. Heh heh heh.”

MENTZER_JEFFERSONShouldering blame
Before going any further, let me say that blame is not the eminent domain of Republicans. Over the years, Democrats have committed their share of political sins as well. At the present hour, however, Republicans hold power in the state Senate and Assembly, and a Republican serves as governor. Even the state Supreme Court is in the control of conservatives.

The Wisconsin Idea remained in force with no changes despite the budget flap, but it’s clear the principle is not really sacred to some in power. Maybe this was a trial balloon to see if anyone really cares. We’d be well-advised to be vigilant and to support newspapers and other media that devote countless hours and untold energy acting in the public’s best interests when it comes to being informed about vital issues.

That’s their job. We need them on watch. Average citizens simply can’t on their own perform the function of government watchdog at the local, state and national levels.

Value of open records
The discovery of proposed changes in the Wisconsin Idea and the UW mission statement came about originally through a review of documents under terms of the state’s open records law.

That simple, straight-forward fact makes the ultimate attempt by the 12 Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee to gut the open records law in the waning moments of the state budget process even more contemptible. They did it without any warning. They did it in secret on Thursday night as the state and nation began the long Fourth of July weekend. They did it — of all times — as the people of Wisconsin and the nation were about to celebrate the Declaration of Independence, freedom and open government.

The 12 Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee, in the words of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Editor George Stanley, “sneaked into the state budget bill a group of fundamental policy changes that would have blown up Wisconsin’s long, proud history of open government and access to public records.”

Trickery and deceit
Stanley continued: “They tried to wall off Wisconsin records behind a cloak of legal privilege and operational secrecy beyond what any other state in America allows.”

Those members of the Joint Finance Committee must have thought nobody would care or pay attention because, after all, it was a holiday weekend. What better time to avoid the inconvenience of full disclosure and debate?

I think it’s safe to say: This is not what the Founding Fathers intended.

When the people of Wisconsin got wind of what was going on — the smell was simply too overpowering to ignore — they responded in fierce Badger fashion.
They rose up and howled their anger and disdain. The politicians backed off. Another trial balloon shot down?

By the afternoon of the Fourth of July, Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican leaders of the Legislature issued a statement: “We have agreed that the provisions relating to any changes in the state’s open records law will be removed from the budget in its entirety.”

I can’t help thinking that they were really saying: “Damn, you caught us red-handed again…well, no harm done. Heh heh heh.”

What they didn’t promise, however, is that the idea of gutting the state open records law would never be attempted again.

Again, vigilance becomes the watchword.

I admit, though, that I’m apprehensive. If the Wisconsin Idea and the state’s open records law are fair game in the political scheme of things, then what’s next on the agenda and how long will it be before similar attacks and deceit are attempted again?

Safeguard public meeting law
Wisconsin has an enviable open meetings law — or at least we once did — that requires governmental bodies at the state and local levels to let the public know when they will be meeting. The law makes sure that citizens know when meetings are scheduled so they can attend and speak up or speak out.

For some in power, it would be so much easier and convenient if they didn’t have to let the public know when they were meeting or what they were discussing until they were ready to make an announcement. Their take on things is: “Just trust us. We know what’s best for you. We can work so much better for you if you don’t slow things down with your inane questions and concerns.”

Apparently, that’s what the Republican majority on the Joint Finance Committee believed when they secretly took action on the eve of the Fourth of July weekend.

Again, I’m sure that’s not what the Founding Fathers intended when they put their lives on the line.

So, I believe that it’s vitally important to guard and preserve the open meetings law for our own personal safety and security. And I believe it’s vastly important to support free speech and the work of newspapers like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison and The Reporter in Fond du Lac, to name a few, as they strive to inform the public when their legislators are on the job.

The job of newspapers and other news is even more difficult as they strive to remain viable and profitable in a changing world where electronic wizardry has become the watchword of the era.

Despite all these modern devices and the threats of politicians to what’s really important, at least in my own mind, I find hope and perspective in the words of a man who grew to hate newspapers but valued them for their greater good in the advancement and preservation of liberty and the republic.

Words of wisdom
There are many comments to draw from, but here are two from a Founding Father and third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.

“To preserve the freedom of the human mind…and freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will and speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.

…Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

And perhaps that’s the bottom line: We have a responsibility to be informed and to be vigilant. That is what we can and should do for our sake and for the sake of those who will succeed us.

Michael Mentzer, now retired after a 40-year newspaper career, writes a monthly column for Scene.

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