Our Views: Janesville city manager's views on transparency are refreshing

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May 21, 2014

In his brief time in municipal government, Janesville City Manager Mark Freitag has learned well the Wisconsin open meetings law's principles and logic.

This former military man has only been on the job since December, but residents should appreciate his push for transparency.

That openness is evident as the city tries to buy the former Town & Country Restaurant building on South River Street. The city's 2007 downtown plan earmarked the property for public parking. It's across the street from the former Plaza Furniture store, which the city also owns and could remove to use in part for a future town square. It's also close to the parking plaza over the river. That crumbling structure is earmarked for demolition.

Set aside for now any concerns about the former restaurant building's historic value. The building is in the West Milwaukee Street Historic District and on the State Register of Historic Places. Businesses have failed in that building in recent years, however, and the First Community Bank of Milton bought it at a sheriff's sale. Besides the city, the bank says two private parties are bidding.

At last week's meeting, some city council members expressed surprise that purchase discussions were occurring in open session. Traditionally, talks about buying properties occurred in closed meetings so sellers wouldn't know how high the city might bid.

Freitag, however, wanted the talks open. Just because such topics can be debated in closed session doesn't mean they should be, he said.

How refreshing.

Credit a seminar on the state's open meetings and open records laws that Freitag attended this spring. Also credit Councilman Jim Farrell for urging Freitag to attend it.

Consider state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen words in his introduction to the open meetings law: “Effective citizen oversight of the workings of government is essential to our democracy and promotes confidence in it. Public access to meetings of governmental bodies is a vital aspect of this principle.”

Now consider an early point in the law: “Although there are some exemptions allowing closed sessions in specified circumstances, they are to be invoked sparingly and only where necessary to protect the public interest.”

Property negotiations are one exemption. The key words in that statement, however, may well be “invoked sparingly.”

Freitag's stance deserves support. Not all property discussions need to be in open session. You could argue these should be closed. Most information in secret meetings, however, will someday be made public. The good that can come from openness often will trump any risk to the city's negotiating strategy.

Janesville residents don't need reminding that uproars can occur when government does the public's business behind closed doors. Exhibit A is Janesville's plan to demolish up to a dozen homes to make way for a new central fire station. No purchase prices were discussed in a closed November meeting. Residents didn't learn for months that their homes might be taken. A Wisconsin Newspaper Association lawyer suggested the closed session ignored the meetings law's provisions.

Each time a situation arises in which state law would allow a closed session, the city council and administrators should weigh the pros and cons. If in doubt, the public is better served when discussions occur in the light of day.

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