Our Views: Secrecy over fire station burns city of Janesville

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Here we are, marking another Sunshine Week, the newspaper industry's annual focus on government transparency, and Janesville is embroiled in a controversy about secrecy.

Madison attorney Bob Dreps, an expert in media law, says the Janesville City Council ignored Wisconsin's open meetings law when it picked a site for a new fire station in closed session last November.

Dreps told reporter Frank Schultz in Friday's Gazette that minutes of that Nov. 25 closed meeting describe policy decisions about how big and where a new Fire Station No. 1 should be, which Dreps said are not allowed as exemptions to the open meetings law. The session's official notice suggested something else—plans to discuss and set bargaining strategies, terms and conditions for potential acquisition of properties for the station.

Council President Kathy Voskuil admitted these latter discussions didn't happen. She told Schultz that the council did not discuss specific homes or their values.

Councilman Matt Kealy, who is seeking re-election to a second term April 1, voted against the plan. Still, he told Schultz he understands the concern about secrecy but didn't think it through.

“Looking back, I guess this could've been a conversation we could have had in public,” he said.

No, Matt, make that should have.

This didn't occur in a rural town where officials don't have ready access to counsel and are accustomed to doing the public's business without much scrutiny. Janesville has a professional staff, and its officials should have enough knowledge and savvy to keep the city from getting itself into such an awkward and unacceptable position.

The irony makes it worse. Case law defining what can and can't be discussed in closed sessions emerged from a lawsuit filed about seven years ago by opponents of the ethanol plant in Janesville's neighboring city of Milton.

How does a public official go into a closed session before stopping and saying, “Wait a minute. Do we have to do this behind closed doors?”

Elected officials in towns, villages, cities and counties shouldn't always trust that legal advisers are giving them sound advice. Too often, as Sunshine Week reports suggest, municipal attorneys aren't experts in open government laws.

Those elected must take responsibility and find reasons to keep meetings open instead of closing them. Shutting out the public from every sensitive discussion is simplistic and even arrogant. And just because a body can close a meeting doesn't mean it must.

This knee-jerk close-the-meeting mentality now has bitten Janesville government. The secrecy over the fire station discussion and decision has angered property owners who for months were left unaware that the city might take their homes. Understandably, it also has riled many other residents.

The city finds itself in trouble mainly because it wasn't transparent. The vast majority of those Nov. 25 discussions—if not all of them—should have happened in open session. It's the law. The Gazette and other newspapers write about and advocate for openness constantly. It's exasperating that the message gets ignored.

The Gazette or the district attorney could attempt to make the council pay for its illegal meeting, but that time and money might be better spent elsewhere. Instead, we'll hammer away until it sinks in: If you're an elected official, take time to know the law. Err on the side of openness—always.

 After all, residents elected you as their representative with the expectation that you would keep them in the loop as much as possible. That, also, is what the law requires.

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