Editor's Views: Here's to a new year of open government

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Scott Angus
Saturday, January 4, 2014

It's not too late for resolutions for 2014.

With that in mind, I'll be presumptuous and offer a resolution on behalf of all elected officials in The Gazette's readership area:

“I resolve to be as open and transparent as possible in conducting the public's business in 2014, even if doing so is sometimes inconvenient and occasionally a downright pain in  the butt.”

There. I feel better. So will the officials who sign on to this pledge and then follow through. After all, doing the right thing always feels good.

In Wisconsin, it's not only the right thing. It's the legal thing. Wisconsin has a tradition of government openness that goes back to the approval of the state's open meetings and open records laws in 1976 and 1981, respectively.

If officials violate those laws, they can be cited and fined.

In short, the laws make it clear that there is a presumption of openness. If you want to keep a meeting or record from public view, you'd better have a good reason backed by a specific exemption in state statute.

That reason can't be convenience. Unfortunately, many officials don't recognize that and exclude the public because it's easier than the alternative. With meetings in particular, officials too often close entire sessions when only small segments of their agendas justify shutting out their constituents.

In those cases, the law says they should cleave off the parts that justify closed sessions and discuss only those items that the statutes specifically exclude from public discussion, such as an employee's performance or a negotiation strategy for buying land. That can be awkward and inconvenient because the private and public elements often intertwine, but that's what officials should do. It's what they must do, according to the law.

That can cause confusion and require a cumbersome and lengthy series of open-closed-open-again meetings. That's a small price to pay, however, for ensuring that residents have access to discussions about how tax dollars are spent and how their elected officials handle the important duties entrusted to them.

I'm often frustrated by how some people go from regular folks who want to serve their communities to elected officials who believe they are entitled to see and discuss things that their neighbors apparently can't handle. Their knee-jerk reactions are to close meetings if the topics are sensitive when, in fact, those subjects hold the most interest and importance to their constituents.

Based on state laws and what's right, public officials should seek ways to keep meetings and records open rather than hide behind debatable exclusions or excuses for shielding the public from its business.

It's our job to monitor this stuff and call officials out when they close records or meetings that we believe should be open. We routinely file records requests or object to such decisions, and we occasionally take officials to court if we believe their actions are egregious.

We can't do it all, though. We need your help. Perhaps that calls for a second resolution from residents in our area to keep a close watch on their elected officials and hold them accountable whenever they decide that the public isn't entitled to see documents or attend meetings.

The best government is a relentlessly transparent government. We must all do what we can to ensure openness in our part of southern Wisconsin.

Scott W. Angus is editor of The Gazette and vice president of news for Bliss Communications; email sangus@gazettextra.com. Follow him on Twitter at @sangus_.

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