Even though our state government has rivaled Chicago machine politics for dirty dealing in the past decade or so, we’re fortunate to have had a couple of Attorneys General who take our state’s powerful Open Records and Open Meetings laws very seriously.
Both the current AG, Republican J.B. Van Hollen, and his predecessor, Democrat Peg Lautenschlager, have been vigorous supporters of the public’s right to know what’s going on with their governmental bodies and in their court system. Van Hollen was just named “Political Openness Advocate of the Year” by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
Van Hollen fights for continued public access to court records, goes around the state giving tutorials about how to use the state’s openness laws, and even expanded the AG’s website to give regular folks information on how to use the laws if they feel some elected official is trying to hide something.
Bill Lueders, news editor of the weekly Madison newspaper “Isthmus”, is the President of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. Every year the FOIC gives out the “Opees” just before Sunshine Week. The “Opee” is an award for defending the public’s right to know, and this week - Sunshine Week - was established to draw attention to the importance of maintaining open government and court access, and to honor those who defend it and make the public aware of those trying to limit openness.
This year, Lueders draws attention to a couple issues he sees as problems in maintaining our state’s record of openness: one is an attempt by a politician to limit access to the state’s popular circuit court website, commonly called “CCAP”, and the other is an attempt to limit public access to 9-1-1 recordings.
Any citizen can find out essentially anything about court records in Wisconsin by going to a county courthouse and asking to see a particular court record; or, you can go online to the CCAP website and do the same thing, much more easily. One of the politicians says this is TOO easy and wants to limit access to the site. The politician in question, Marlin Schneider, says it’s too easy to get too much information about who’s in court and why they’re there. Openness advocates disagree, saying easy public access is neither invasive nor harmful.
Those who are attempting to limit public access to 9-1-1 recordings say it can be very difficult for family and friends of victims of violent crimes to hear the emotional recordings played back by electronic news media. But openness advocates point out that the public really does have a right to hear these recordings, to help make sometimes tough decisions about whether the 9-1-1 center is functioning efficiently.
The Brittany Zimmerman murder case in Madison a couple years ago is an example. Only a select few have been allowed to hear the last words of the UW coed, taped by the 9-1-1 center; but, it led to big changes in the center and a new director. And the public has yet to hear the tape.
There are legitimate reasons to keep confidential some things our elected or appointed officials do, and there are sensitive issues in courtrooms which should be kept confidential. Those reasons are clearly spelled out in our open meetings and open records laws. But as a general principal, the more public access we have, the better our systems will function.