3/18/2017 7:29:00 AM Let the sun shine in the Northwoods The Lakealnd Times, Northwoods River News list their 2017 open records grades
In honor of Sunshine Week - a celebration and advocacy of open government - The Northwoods River News and The Lakeland Times present the newspapers' 2017 awards and grades for openness in conducting public business.
The following grades are calculated using several measures, including how responsive officials have been this past year to open records' requests, how diligently they have strived to keep the workings of government open, how willing they were to communicate with the media and with the public, as well as their past track record.
The rating scale:
A - Excellent.
Passionately committed to open government and accountability. The public is lucky to have these officials. They have full knowledge of the open records' and open meetings' laws.
B - Good.
These records' custodians do an above-average job. They may need more knowledge and education about the law but are committed in principle to openness and side more often than not with open-records' advocates.
C - Average.
These custodians need more immediate education about open government laws. They tend to respond slowly to records' requests, and they are as likely to withhold information as to release it. Still, these officials have never landed in court over an open records' dispute.
D - Below Average.
These custodians do not believe in open government or in the release of open records. They usually land on the side of secrecy. These officials are suspicious of the public. They have very little knowledge of the open records' and open meetings' laws, and have even less interest in learning about them.
F - Failure.
These people should be removed as records' custodians. They cannot be trusted by the public and couldn't spell FREEDOM if you spotted them F-R-E-E-_-O-M.
I - Incomplete.
While it is too early to rate an overall performance in their current positions, we will record any recent actions and use their track records to calculate a "trending" rank.
And now, this year's grades:
A+ - The best of the best
Neal A. "Chip" Nielsen, Vilas County circuit court judge This past year, we encountered no significant new rulings on open records by Vilas County circuit court judge Neal A. "Chip" Nielsen, but we continue to give him our highest honor because of a lifetime of accumulated work, which is a consistent body of rulings dedicated to preserving the principles of open government.
One might call it a lifetime achievement award for his work to date.
Back in 2008, for instance, Nielsen issued a landmark ruling that school staff and faculty disciplinary records were subject to disclosure as "a matter of principle." The ruling put to rest the notion that open-records' requests must be for the records of specific, named individuals or that requesters must provide reasons for wanting the documents.
When opponents of the request called a broader request a "fishing expedition," Nielsen quipped: "There's no limit on fishing season around here."
In January 2016, in a case involving The Lakeland Times, Nielsen again affirmed his undying commitment to transparency. We say so not because his decision favored the newspaper - it did - but because he obviously balanced the pros and cons of disclosure of the records at hand and reached a decision based first and foremost on the public's right to know.
It was an eloquent decision, and for a principle that is hardly defended at all these days, much less with the wisdom of the ages: the public's right to know, even - and sometimes especially - in the most extraordinary circumstances.
We know that judge Nielsen will not likely rule in favor of open-records' advocates every time they step into his courtroom; but those advocates can rest assured that, every time, he will rule in favor of their First Principle, that the public's right to know is a sacred thing, not lightly dismissed.
Roben Haggart, Town of Minocqua We want to point out that good town clerks at that level of local government are a key to the successful, day to day administrative operations of a given town, regardless of size.
In the Lakeland area where we deal with a few of them quite regularly, a few stand out.
There's one in particular, however, who's extremely helpful when it comes to information the newspaper requests of her.
And if she doesn't know the answer, she goes that extra mile to find who does.
That would be Minocqua town clerk Roben Haggart.
Requests for information are usually fulfilled by Haggart within minutes, whether they're submitted via telephone call or email.
The town board's meeting agendas, when sent via email, have either links to background material in the email or attachments containing the same materials, for the most part, the town board will be looking at as they prepare for an upcoming meeting.
It not only makes our job a little easier, but tends to scream "Transparency!"
If all elected officials operated like she did, things would be a lot more sunny during Sunshine Week.
Kim Albano, Town of Woodruff We're also going to miss Woodruff town clerk Kim Albano, who is moving on to bigger and better things.
Albano has been another town clerk who's been a pleasure to work with and extremely cooperative when it comes to supplying information we ask for and need to do our job.
Hopefully, the person who steps into that job will be just as good to work with.
A - Excellent
Oneida County Planning and Development Committee The committee - comprised of supervisors Scott Holewinski, Jack Sorensen, Dave Hintz, Billy Fried and Mike Timmons - along with zoning director Karl Jennrich and assistant director Pete Wegner, have shown transparency with the media and public. The committee held 77 meetings dating back to 2010 to come up with a new shoreland protection ordinance.
After completing the ordinance, the committee held three public hearings in three different locations, while holding them at a time that would maximize public attendance. Throughout the hearings, the committee allowed the public to ask questions for clarification before opening up the public hearing portion of the meeting.
Robb Jensen and Jack Sorensen, Oneida County supervisors Both supervisors have made themselves available for comment with reporters and have been advocates for transparency.
Sorensen clearly brings passion and knowledge to any committee he serves on, whether it's planning and development or forestry. As the chairman of the Oneida County Forestry, Land and Recreation Committee, his agendas are always clear and appropriate, while remaining on topic during meetings.
Jensen is an open advocate for following open meetings laws. As the chairman for the Oneida County Public Works/Solid Waste Committee, he goes above and beyond to ensure the group stays on topic and provides the necessary information. Jensen also asks questions consistently so he remains well informed while in Oneida County board meetings and as a member of the administration committee.
Citizens for Education in Town Governance CETG is a group of volunteers in Lac du Flambeau that attend town meetings, take notes and post recordings online, allowing access to town governance to everyone. Their website includes copies of town budgets, ongoing town board business, information on public records law, a list of the town's ordinances, and the minutes, agendas and recording of the town board meetings. All of these are free, downloadable files that anybody with Internet can access.
In days when government is becoming less transparent, "watchdog" groups like these are essential. The only problem with CETG is that less people know about them. Visit their website at http://cetg.weebly.com.
Lakeland Union High School Both in regular committee and monthly school board meetings, Lakeland Union High School deserves recognition. District administrator Jim Bouché and school board president Tom Gabert maintain a sense of efficiency and professionalism for LUHS.
Material requests are quickly provided from district secretary Lisa Kennedy, who often goes out of her way to ensure the media is up to date on the latest matters affecting members of the public.
Committee meetings appear productive and maintain focus and concision. These meetings are then reported on during the monthly school board meetings in an accurate manner. The large school board attempts to ensure everyone's voice is heard and Bouché's monthly "Principal's Report" stays on topic.
LUHS' board goes out of their way to recognize student achievement and encourages board members to be a true part of the educational path. For that, they deserve positive recognition.
Newbold Town Board Oh, if every town could run like Newbold. Truly efficient in every sense of the word without skipping over essential town business. The board does not waste a moment and ensures discussion stays on topic.
Chairman Dave Kroll keeps a watchful eye of the proceedings in Newbold. He is knowledgeable, attentive, listeners to both the public and fellow supervisors. It is clear he is well respected in Newbold.
Clerk Kim Gauthier provides requested materials quickly and is organized and informed on business being discussed at the bi-monthly meetings. She is an example town clerk.
Newbold does not seem to get side tracked, which can be attributed to their bi-monthly meeting schedule. It allows for town business to be tended to promptly, without constant reminders about what is being discussed. Northwoods towns, take note.
Minocqua Police Department Minocqua police chief Dave Jaeger continues to be proactive in the relationship between the department and the media.
That's despite an article The Times ran the first week of this year that took a look at the practice of the top three members of the command and control element of the Minocqua Police Department being gone (but on call) simultaneously for a week over the Christmas holiday.
That story ran along with an Our View on the editorial page questioning the wisdom of such a move.
The paper will talk to town officials as well as Jaeger and do a followup.
All in all, though, the cooperation level with media is about as good as The Times could ask for without having our own office in the police department.
Rhinelander Police Department The RPD has a long-standing relationship of openness with this newspaper. Capt. Ron Lueneburg meets weekly with a reporter of this paper to go over police reports and keeps us informed of the department's activities. The few times the newspaper has filed open records requests with the department, it has been prompt in turning over the information. Officers from the department on they scenes of accidents and fires have been mindful of the needs of our reporters in covering the events while at the same time keeping them out of harms way.
B+ - Better than most
Landfill Venture Group Last year's grade for the executive committee of the Landfill Venture Group was a C-plus.
That was after the LVG took action over the course of 2015 that resulted in its grade being brought up from an F.
In February of that year, the LVG's three member executive committee fired Thea Mansavage, an employee at the County G landfill in the town of Cloverland, owned by 14 Vilas County municipalities.
Mansavage made allegations that resulted in a four or five year investigation by the Vilas County sheriff's department, allegations ultimately resulting in no action by former Vilas County attorney Al Moustakis and the investigation was closed in January 2015.
In early March 2015, Mansavage, on vacation at the time, was fired by the executive committee during a meeting at the Eagle River city hall, a meeting attended by one other person, a Lakeland Times reporter.
What happened after that is a long story but in summation: the makeup of the three member executive committee changed and Mansavage lost her appeal.
Regarding the Mansavage case, she has, in the past few months, brought a lawsuit against the LVG and the whole thing is currently expected to go to trial a year from now.
In the meantime, the three executive committee members - Cloverland town chairman Scott Masciosek, Arbor Vitae town chairman Frank Bauers and Plum Lake town supervisor Gary Schmidt - are overseeing an effort to expand the landfill, working with Vilas County and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources there.
Obviously, the paper doesn't have a crystal ball and doesn't know what will happen with the Mansavage case against the LVG.
All we can tell you is they've been pretty good to deal with overall recently and continue to improve.
B - Good
City of Rhinelander While the Rhinelander City Council has been exceptionally fast responding to open records requests, promptly responding to all but one in the last year, that one exception really hurt their grade. It took nearly three months after it was filed before the records were turned over.
On the subject of open meetings, the city also has a mixed record, with the Aug. 31, 2016 closed session meeting where former city administrator Kristina Aschenbrenner was dismissed, while ruled by Oneida County DA Mike Schiek to not be a violation of the law, certainly was controversial with not only us, but the public as a whole. This also negatively impacted their grade this year.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Some lawmakers are proposing the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources be split into two parts, and that might not be such a bad idea because the agency already has a split personality.
On the one hand, a lot of media have a lot of complaints about the agency's transparency. In the past several years, among other things, the DNR got busted for keeping a "do not respond" list for people it considered persistent or abusive or simply annoying whiners. DNR secretary Cathy Stepp says she abandoned that list.
The Midwest Environmental Advocates also filed a complaint that the DNR delayed responses to its open-records requests by more than six months; the agency settled the lawsuit.
In addition, the DNR "discussed disciplining an employee after she provided public records to a Sheboygan County citizens group" because she went the extra mile and compiled the information into a more usable form rather than merely turning over raw data.
Then, this past September, a complaint was filed that the Natural Resources Board was hosting "social dinners" for board members the night before meetings without posting them. The complaint alleged that the board had discussed public matters at one dinner, thus violating the open-meetings law.
The agency announced in October it would no longer host the social dinners, out of "a desire for the utmost transparency."
Yeah, about that, it seems like the DNR always seeks the utmost transparency after it has been busted for acting in the utmost secrecy.
For our part, though, as we observed last year, the DNR has been pretty forthcoming on open-records requests. Most recently, the agency turned over the names of those who harvested and registered deer in the northern zone this past deer season. Those numbers have been called into question, and the newspaper sought the underlying data to verify the figures.
The agency defends its numbers, and the verification process is ongoing, but the DNR fulfilled the request, as it has others the newspaper has submitted.
We give the agency an above-average grade.
Vilas County government An addition or two to our editorial staff in the past year has allowed us to expand our coverage in the Lakeland area.
One of those governmental entities we have our reporters at regularly are most committee meetings of the Vilas County board along with the regular, monthly board meetings themselves.
For the most part, there are no real issues, aside from one of our reporters being told by supervisor Jay Verhulst a table at one of the committee meetings wasn't able to accommodate his recorder.
There also may be signs some on the Vilas County board aren't "up to speed" on open meetings laws as they pertain to the size of a quorum of a committee and emails they may be sending to each other that quite possibly probably shouldn't be.
Or even whether or not a committee chair can just remove an agenda item when they feel like it after the meeting's been legally posted and no amended agenda was posted to reflect the change.
A refresher consisting of what can and can't be done by elected officials with respect to that may be in order, a refresher the county's new corporation counsel, John "Jack" Albert may want to present.
Unless former corporation counsel Martha Milanowski, now the county attorney, one of the more really diligent individuals at the county level with a record of making sure county supervisors and others follow the state open meetings law, has time to do it.
Her replacement as corporation counsel, Albert, has only been in office a few months and we'll see if he can keep the county board on the "straight and narrow" in that respect as Milanowski did.
If you read the article in Tuesday's edition of The Lakeland Times regarding the March 9 meeting of the county's land and water conservation committee, you'll see there may be a block of instruction required somewhere.
Milanowski may be needed to help out a little there.
Otherwise, Vilas County clerk Dave Alleman and his staff, as well as the various department heads, make sure meeting notices for those committees are sent out well ahead of a meeting date, via email as well as on the meeting calendar on the county's website.
For the most part, no real big problem at this time.
However, there are apparently questions about emails getting sent back and forth between committee members and the fact a committee chair here or there may need to be reminded why they can't just pull an item from a posted agenda drops the grade a bit.
We're going to keep an eye on that.
Vilas County Sheriff's Department The Vilas County Sheriff's Department is working the case of LuAnn Beckman, the 47-year-old-woman who's body was found May 17 near a bike trail in the town of Phelps.
That case has been declared a homicide.
It's been nearly a year and there are, at this time, still no arrests made although investigators continue to work leads.
In December, the cause of Beckman's death, "asphyxia due to strangulation and smothering," was released but little else as the department has continued to send material, wait for results of testing and submit more material to the state crime lab.
In addition, Vilas County sheriff Joe Fath told The Lakeland Times in December his investigators were also working with the FBI lab in Quantico, Virg.
Tuesday, Patrick Schmidt, the department's chief deputy, told The Times there are still items investigators are waiting on from the state crime lab and the FBI lab in relation to that case.
The same is true for another investigation the sheriff's office has been working since late September when the body of a 45-year-old woman was found in a vehicle in Lac du Flambeau.
From the outset, Fath has said the death of Michele Rosinski has been treated as a "suspicious death investigation."
Schmidt said Tuesday that designation hasn't changed although he said the hope was the investigation could move into another stage soon.
There's also been an administrative issue between Lac du Flambeau police chief Bob Brandenburg and Fath going back a year or so, a little too complicated to get into here.
It resulted, however, in Brandenburg's department sending many of its prisoners to Iron County instead of to the Vilas County jail in Eagle River.
That in turn has allowed the Vilas County jail to once again house inmates from other counties, up to 25 at time at nearly $52 per day for each inmate.
We're sure there are those day-to-day headaches for Fath - there's bound to be something - but as long as they don't get anywhere near what the current Oneida County sheriff's situation is, he should be OK.
And hopefully, we're hoping the Beckman and Rosinki families can get some closure when those cases are finally closed.
B- - Better than average
Town of Three Lakes When it comes to public comment, the town of Three Lakes is the example others should follow. Prior to any meeting, town chair Stella Westfall finds out which members of the audience wish to speak on what agenda topics. When those items come up, those members are recognized by the chair and they then give their input, before the board votes.
When it comes to open meetings, the town errors on the side of caution, conducting a lot of public business in open session.
The Northwoods River News has not filed any open records request with the town clerk Sue Harris being more than willing to answer questions.
The major ding on their grade is the practice of not getting meeting agendas online until late the day before, not giving residents much advance notice of what will be acted on.
C - Average
School District of Rhinelander Rhinelander Schools have made an effort of late to be more open and transparent, but this has not always been the case. The resignation of Kelly Huseby as principal of Crescent Elementary School just after the start of the current school year was shrouded in secrecy by both superintendent Kelli Jacobi and the school board. Repeated efforts to obtain information were stymied, and the closed session meeting where the matter was first brought up - as well as subsequent ones - did not follow the proper Open Meetings Law procedures, in our opinion.
In the wake of the way the matter was handled, Jacobi got together with Northwoods River News staff and promised to be more open and transparent in the future. To her credit, she has been.
Grady Hartman, Oneida County sheriff & Dan Hess, Oneida Country chief deputy It's probably going too far to say Oneida County sheriff Grady Hartman and his chief deputy, Dan Hess, had a vision that told them to follow the sun when it comes to open government, but considerable progress has been made within the sheriff's department on open records this past year.
In the past, Hartman has stonewalled reporters and, in clear violation of the state's public records law, severely restricted the amount of time reporters could inspect public records on any given day.
But this year he and Hess hit the reset button.
For one thing, Hartman opened up to the The Times about the reasons he denied records in the Lee Lech open-records case that the county ultimately lost, and which cost taxpayers $50,000.
The reason? When The Times first made the request, Hartman said, Oneida County corporation counsel Brian Desmond advised him to deny the records. That denial led to a conversation with Times' publisher Gregg Walker, in which Walker explained settled case law and warned Hartman the newspaper would sue and win if Hartman did not change his mind.
To his credit, the sheriff sought a second opinion from outside counsel.
To be sure, the advice from the outside counsel was the same as that Desmond offered: Bad advice, that is. And so Hartman continued to deny the records.
The bottom line is, one can hardly fault the sheriff for heeding advice both from the county's corporation counsel and a second opinion from an outside attorney. The lesson is, Oneida County needs new lawyers, both on the inside and outside.
That's not all. While Hartman named those who gave the bad advice, he nonetheless told the newspaper the decision was his to make as the records' custodian and, in the end, he owned it. That is an admirable admission.
In addition, the department has filled more recent open-records requests, dropping a fee of $250 for disciplinary records and quickly turning over civil asset forfeiture records.
In the old days, the Oneida County sheriff's department routinely won 'A' grades in our annual ratings, before falling far in the rankings over the past several years. We're not quite convinced yet that there has been a complete return to those good old days, but this year marked significant improvement.
State Sen. Tom TiffanyThis year, state Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) improves his score and passes, not so much because he has changed his thinking on open government but because most everybody else is so much worse.
True, Tiffany received a failing grade last year for voting as a member of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee to effectively repeal the open-records law. It was one of those infamous last-minute votes taken at night.
To his credit, Tiffany did concede almost immediately that it was a bad vote, and he did apologize. Still, the vote is there, and he has not really worked to upgrade his bad reputation on this issue.
In addition, as he has in the past, Tiffany again refused to say last year that he would bring a bill or support a bill to place the state Legislature under the same records retention rules as others in state government. While state agencies and other officials must generally keep records for seven years, lawmakers long ago exempted themselves from the law, and can destroy public documents at any time.
"My records are open" was all Tiffany would say on the matter in the interview last fall.
All that notwithstanding, Tiffany has several things going for him that boosts him from failure to passing.
First, he is not on a mission to destroy CCAP, the state's online circuit court database, as his Northwoods colleague, Rep. Mary Felzkowski, is. In fact, in that interview with The Times last year, he said the media would have to sign off on any change to CCAP, which gives the public full access to most court records and proceedings.
Felzkowski would gut that access, media be damned.
Second, though we don't know how he would vote, Tiffany has not signed on to legislation that would end the requirement that state and local governmental bodies publish public notices in newspapers.
So while Tiffany is hardly a beacon for openness and transparency, he is also not the worst of the bunch, and, in this sad day and age, that's something.
Michael Schiek, Oneida County district attorney To say we have been frustrated with Oneida County district attorney Michael Schiek in the past would be an understatement, but this year the district attorney has moved up the chart, logging a solid 'C.'
That's even more impressive than it sounds because, while usually a 'C' would be considered average, this year - given the dismal grades of so many - it's actually an above-average score.
When The Times filed a complaint with Schiek this year after having come upon evidence that the county's labor relations committee had violated the open-meetings law, we were convinced Schiek would do nothing. We were convinced he would never cross the good old boys of Oneida County.
We were so sure of it that we wrote a column predicting it. But we were wrong.
We suppose we have egg on our faces but we view it sunny side up. We're glad we were wrong because the district attorney found that the committee had indeed violated the law and, when he did, he served notice on all county officials that the days of automatic exoneration were over.
Sure, the fine of $25 and mandatory training, which turned out to be by an anti-transparency attorney, don't seem severe, but the consequences of the finding we believe will have a long-term effect.
For one thing, county officials will now think twice about breaking a law popular with the voting public, a violation of which could be used as campaign fodder.
Second, penalties will likely increase - and any fines come out of the individual's pocket - if there are more infractions. Finally, courts can render any actions taken in an illegal session null and void.
So the mere finding we see as a transformational moment in open-records and open-meetings law philosophy within the county. It sets up at least one force willing to prosecute violations.
It's a huge step forward, and for that we moved Michael Schiek's grade forward.
D - Meets few expectations
Oneida County Public Works/Solid Waste Committee The committee is open to transparency, but has shown dysfunction during meetings.
The solid waste supervisor position job description has been posted three times since November, and most recently, was posted before the committee decided to reconstruct the description after the application deadline had passed.
Dave Hintz, Oneida County Board of Supervisors chairman Prior to the mandatory open meetings law training for the Oneida County board in February, Hintz delivered a passionate speech about how the supervisors needed to have a good attitude and try to get better in that department.
Here's the problem with that: It's the law.
Simply trying to get better and have the right attitude isn't enough. The county must do better. It's required, by law, that they get better.
Attorney general Brad Schimel When Brad Schimel was elected attorney general, we had high hopes he would continue in the open government tradition of his predecessor, J.B. Van Hollen. Van Hollen routinely earned high grades in our annual ratings.
Schimel got off to a good start. Among other things, he opened the attorney general's Office of Open Government, and he reduced the average response time to open-records requests to 20 days, down from 59 days in 2014.
In addition, Schimel had the guts to speak up when Gov. Scott Walker and company tried to obliterate the open-records laws in 2015.
What's more, Schimel convened an open-government summit that brought together transparency advocates and government officials for a frank discussion - the kind of summit Scott Walker promised when he was elected but never followed through on.
But this year Schimel has traveled a darker road. He has opposed the release of Department of Justice training videos, videos that should be treated as merely cinematic versions of printed training manuals, which are open to the public.
The very idea that the methods used to train law enforcement personnel are not open to the public threatens the public's safety. Just what are they teaching them?
Even worse, the DOJ continues its clearly illegal policy of withholding the names of employees disciplined for misconduct. There is simply no rational foundation for withholding such information - not in the statutes and not in case law.
Protecting the names of those who engage in misconduct is a sop to the unions and the bureaucracies, and only emboldens them, for they can act with impunity and without accountability.
F - The failures
Oneida County Board of Supervisors While many of the supervisors have conducted themselves appropriately and have followed open-meetings laws, the board on the whole has not.
The county went into closed session a total of 118 times in 2016 for committee meetings and during board meetings.
A number of the supervisors have shown a lack of knowledge regarding open-meetings laws and open-records laws, and some have shown a refusal to learn more about them.
Myles Alexander, UW-Extension When the moderator of the city of Rhinelander's Parks Public Engagement Task Force opened the group's first meeting a couple months ago with a 10-minute tirade against how media coverage of city government is counter-productive to it conducting the people's business, it got our attention. He also suggested at the same meeting that public hearings before the city council are not a good way to obtain public comment, because only those citizens against the matter being discussed will attend. Alexander also had to be reminded that as a quasi-governmental body, his task force is subject to open meeting and records laws. These actions came after a pair of public listening sessions on parks held last fall upset local residents because they were not allowed to speak for or against a proposed second softball field at Pioneer Park.
As someone who is helping the parks, buildings and grounds committee gather public input on a parks master plan, his lack of openness seems to be at odds with this goal.
Attorney Lori LubinskyLubinsky has a bad reputation in open-government circles, and she certainly didn't help it in the last couple of years in Oneida County.
Lubinsky was a lead attorney for the county in this newspaper's open-records case against the sheriff's department, which the county lost and which cost taxpayers $50,000 in legal fees.
Lubinsky also defended the county in 2004 in an open-records case filed by The Times against then corporation counsel Larry Heath. The paper settled that case out of court, with the county agreeing to pay more than $6,000 in legal fees to the newspaper.
Just this past month, the county hired Lubinsky to lead - no, this is not a joke - an open-meetings compliance seminar. There, she offered more bad advice, with critical omissions concerning what constitutes an official meeting that has to be noticed and how specific agendas must be when they are posted.
We hope the county stays clear of her in the future, but this much we know: Whenever you see Lubinsky hanging around, it can't be good for open government. She's the hired gun of closed government; her job in open records cases is to squeeze the breath out of transparency, not revive it.
Ted Cushing, Oneida County Supervisor Supervisor Ted Cushing does not strike us as an official who is inherently opposed to open government. In fact, for many years he has given us no reason to believe that he is anything other than supportive of transparency.
But his actions this past year, whether by purpose or by lapse, force us to give him a failing grade. Specifically, Cushing is a member of two committees we have singled out for intolerable open-government conduct.
In fact, he was the chairman of the labor relations and employee services committee, which, the district attorney determined, violated the state's open meetings law. And he served, too, on the county's public safety committee, which refused to reveal who gave the bad advice leading to the county's loss of its open-records lawsuit with this newspaper, though there was no public policy or legal reason to keep the name hidden.
This kind of protection for good old boys and his cavalier treatment of what can be discussed in closed sessions earn Cushing his 'F' this year.
State Rep. Mary Felzkowski (formerly Czaja) Last year, we labeled state Rep. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) as a lawmaker who was particularly distinguished as an enemy of openness, the Quasimodo of the Cathedral of Open Government, where she helps organize Madison's own Festival of Fools, otherwise know as yearly attacks on open records.
We have not changed our opinion of her. Though the Northwoods' lawmaker this past year said she made a mistake to vote to gut the state's open-records' law, she has held her ground on other noxious measures that aim to do the same thing by any other name.
She refuses to commit to placing the Legislature under the open-records retention law, which covers most other government officials and agencies and generally requires public records to be kept for seven years. In other words, she doesn't want to have to play by the same rules (in this case, a law) that virtually all other government officials have to follow.
She also does not believe in waiving fees to pay the cost of fulfilling open-records requests, though she said they should be reasonable. For newspapers, she told The Times last year, the newspaper should pay reasonable fees for records as a cost of doing business.
Somehow she misses the fact that open government - and the consequent waiving of fees in the public interest - should be seen by officials as the cost of doing the people's business. Instead, she wants to place the cost of openness on the backs of average people rather than on a $76-billion state government, where it would be, and is, a minuscule portion of the tab.
That's what we call having your priorities wrong.
Worst of all, Felzkowski wants to narrow the information listed on the state's circuit court online database, specifically by removing the records of charges when there is an acquittal or the charges are dropped. The truth is, wiping that charge off the books can endanger innocent people more by having a record of their innocence removed from CCAP, leaving headline readers and gossipmongers free to spread false rumors without any recourse to correcting them.
Felzkowski also believes the public should have no access to legislator-constituent communications that are personal and not policy oriented. But redacting personal information would accomplish the same goal, while preserving the context and substance of the communication, which often yields important policy information.
This legislator has no sense of the importance of transparency, and, given her consistent record, seems incapable of learning it.
Wisconsin Counties Association, Wisconsin Towns Association, Wisconsin League of Municipalities, Wisconsin Association of School Boards If ever there were four organizations that should not exist, these are the four: Wisconsin Counties Association, Wisconsin Towns Association, Wisconsin League of Municipalities, and Wisconsin Association of School Boards.
For one thing, towns, villages, cities, and counties are all creatures of the state; their existence depends on laws enacted by the state. There are some home rule powers for cities and villages, but the main job of these units of government is to provide services and serve as administrative arms of the state.
So why do they need to form an interest group to lobby the state? As a creature and subordinate of the state, they should not be lobbying the state for anything, and, in doing so, they are in fact lobbying against the public interest.
What does any of this have to do with open records? Plenty.
Consider that these associations are all lobbying for a bill in the Legislature that would end the requirement that they publish most public notices in newspapers. That is a decision they should decidedly not have a hand in.
On the federal level lobbying by government agencies is outlawed; these units of government are essentially state agencies by virtue of their relationship to state government, and they shouldn't be lobbying, either.
When they do, they are almost certain not to lobby for the people so much as for the public officials themselves. That's why they formed an interest group for themselves, and that means they'll be lobbying for ever more secrecy, as they are doing with the public-notice legislation.
And while the Association of School Boards is different structurally from the others in its relationship to the state, the same lobbying principle goes for it, too. It's a bold conflict of interest.
The Wisconsin Supreme CourtThe state's courts, and in particular the state's Supreme Court, have not been very favorable in recent year to the state's open records laws.
In fact, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court is apparently blind to the fact that letting government operate in secrecy increases government power, the very opposite of what one would expect limited government conservatives to support.
In a particularly noxious example, in 2015, the Supreme Court declined to review an appellate court decision that a government authority can keep a record sealed even if it is a lie crafted deliberately by the government authority.
That's right, if a government official makes up a lie on a document and then tries to cover up the lie up by using an open-records law exemption to keep it secret, that official can certainly do so, now with the Supreme Court's blessing.
Shame on them.
This year, the high court added to its dismal rulings when it decided on a 5-2 vote that attorney general Brad Schimel does not have to release Wisconsin Department of Justice training tapes. The attorney general argued that the tapes would reveal techniques used by law enforcement used to catch child predators.
However, as lower courts pointed out, those techniques were already in the public domain and so the tapes were not revealing anything not already known.
But the Supreme Court majority said essentially, 'So what?' and proceeded to give law enforcement a new excuse to deny access to public records - you'll reveal our secrets!
To her credit, justice Shirley Abrahamson dissented, writing, "The question for me is: What has the majority achieved with its opinion grounded in speculative, abstract, and unsubstantiated fears? The answer for me is: A dimming of the light on public oversight of government, especially in matters pertaining to criminal justice."
The court majority favoring secrecy was Rebecca Bradley, Michael J. Gableman, Daniel Kelly, Patience Roggensack and Annette Ziegler.
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley joined Abrahamson in the dissent.
So why include Abrahamson and Bradley in the bad grade? Because, as we have noted, the Supreme Court has a long list of bad decisions about transparency, and no one on the court can be said to have clean hands.
The Wisconsin Legislature The Wisconsin Legislature continues to be a cesspool of secrecy and self-serving nonsense. Every year legislative leaders come up with new ideas to thwart the open-records law, and recycle old ones they haven't been able to pass. Every year, for instance, lawmakers attempt to dismantle CCAP, the state's online circuit court records database.
The reason these ideas have to be recycled is because public outrage forces these legislators to abandon the bad ideas and head back into their sewers to plot more attacks on openness. This year, the new assault is on public notice requirements in newspapers.
The truth is, lawmakers do not deserve to be heard on any open-records proposal until they bring themselves under the open-records retention law - a statute they have conveniently exempted themselves from but which they have required almost every other government official to abide by.
Hypocrites every one, exempting themselves from the open meetings and records retention laws, all the while protesting that each of them individually is honest and open.
State Sen. Duey Stroebel; Sen. Lena Taylor; Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, and Rep. Jason Fields These lawmakers have taken the lead in authoring and pushing legislation this year to end the requirements that summaries of state and local government meetings be published in newspapers.
The bill would banish much important government information to government websites, and enable government officials to escape the scrutiny of much larger newspaper audiences.
Among the four lawmakers above are two Republicans (Stroebel and Thiesfeldt) and two Democrats (Taylor and Fields), demonstrating just how bipartisan the disdain for open government is among government officials.
F- - The worst of the worst
Gov. Scott Walker Last year Gov. Scott Walker roared to the worst possible grade any official can receive, on the strength of his and the Republican Legislature's attempt to eviscerate the open-records law.
As we pointed out last year, the governor did not merely try to evade the law - which he had done by trying to withhold "deliberative" documents - he did not just seek to weaken the law.
The governor and his comrades sought to destroy it, to effectively repeal it.
This year the governor is up to no good again in his seemingly never-ending quest to close the doors of government. In his budget proposal, the governor unleashed yet another assault on transparency, proposing to abandon requirements that governmental bodies publish certain public notices in newspapers.
The proposal comes on the heels of a bipartisan effort by a group of lawmakers to roll back the publication of governmental meeting minutes.
Specifically, the governor would allow all governmental units with printing, publishing, and mailing requirements the option to make most materials available electronically on government websites.
In other words, the governor wants to remove critical information from those publications and news websites where most people get their news, and put them instead on government websites, which can safely be called digital ghost towns. Nobody goes there.
So, gone would be the required publication by hospitals of rate increases. Gone would be the publication of ordinances and resolutions, of governmental financial reports, of the legislative review of general permits, of development moratoria, of notices of educational options, of school board meetings and reports, of permits for discharges into wetlands, and a whole lot more.
This governor seeks to do more damage to open government than any other Wisconsin official has since the passage of open records and open meetings laws.
Oneida County Public Safety and Labor Relations & Employee Services Committees With a few notable exceptions, Oneida County government has over the years been notoriously opposed to government transparency. The resistance to openness has come from many individual government officials, but also from various committees and boards, and this year two committees lead the way when it comes to egregious behavior.
Such behavior should make no one feel safe.
Most recently, Oneida County district attorney Michael Schiek found that the Oneida County Labor Relations & Employee Services Committee violated the state's open meetings law.
During a closed session, the committee engaged in routine leave-of-absence and policy discussions that were not exempt from the open-meetings statute, as well as in a discussion of this newspaper's open records request with the county, which was not noticed on the meeting agenda.
Committee chairman Ted Cushing agreed to pay a forfeiture of $25, and all county board members were required to attend a training seminar on compliance with the state's open meetings laws.
Cushing admitted the violations, telling the newspaper the closed-session discussions "shouldn't have happened." But we continue to wonder just how routine such infractions are, and whether the regret has more to do with getting caught than with a desire to uphold the law.
The other members of the committee besides Cushing were supervisors Billy Fried, Sonny Paszak, Carol Pederson, and Dave Hintz, combined with human resources director Lisa Charbarneau.
The other Oneida County committee with an outstandingly bad open-government record this past year is the public safety committee.
During last year, Oneida County agreed to pay The Lakeland Times more than $50,000 in attorneys' fees and court costs as a final settlement in an open-records lawsuit involving the sheriff's department that the county lost to The Times . Vilas County circuit court judge Neal "Chip" A. Nielsen III ordered the sheriff's department to release certain records The Times had sought.
In the months after the records were released, Times' publisher Gregg Walker attempted to find out from the public-safety committee who gave sheriff Grady Hartman the legal advice to withhold the records and force the litigation.
Walker said the public had a right to know whose bad advice had cost the county $50,000, especially since Walker had warned Hartman before filing litigation that the newspaper would sue for the records and that the county would lose because no court since a 2007 decision in Kroeplin had allowed the disciplinary records and closed investigatory files of employees to be kept sealed.
Despite repeated requests, the public safety committee stonewalled the newspaper, refusing on multiple occasions to divulge who counseled the county to deny the request. Ultimately Hartman revealed the initial source of his advice: Corporation counsel Brian Desmond.
The public found out, but no thanks to the public safety committee's ongoing intransigence to openness.
The members of the public safety committee were Ted Cushing, Billy Fried, Bob Metropulos, Mitchell Ives, and chairman Mike Timmons.
Billy Fried, Oneida County supervisor It's hard to say that any one Oneida County supervisor is worse on open government than another - except for a notable few, they're all bad - but if one can be singled out for exceptional failure, it's Billy Fried.
Give him credit for hard work, though, for you have to work hard to be this bad.
First, as with supervisor Ted Cushing, Fried is a member of both committees we singled out for extraordinarily bad open-government conduct this year.
He served on the Oneida County Labor Relations & Employee Services Committee, which, the district attorney determined, violated the state's open-meetings law. And he served, too, on the county's public safety committee, which refused to tell this newspaper who gave the bad advice leading to the county's open-records loss in the sheriff's department (Lee Lech) lawsuit.
There was no public policy reason to shield the identity of the lawyer who gave the bad advice, nor was there any legal exemption that would allow them to do so; the committee was merely circling the wagons to try and cover for their good-old-boy buddies.
So far, that puts Fried on a par with Cushing as rating an 'F.'
But Fried goes one better to earn his F-Minus. During a meeting of the public safety committee, in which Times' publisher Gregg Walker expressed concerns about the lack of accountability of the sheriff's department to other county elected officials and bodies and urged the committee to revise the county code to provide more oversight, Fried said he was upset.
Amazingly, instead of pledging to investigate the concerns raised, Fried defended the department and turned his fire on Walker. He was especially upset, he said, because the committee chairman had been "gracious enough" to allow Walker to speak to the committee.
The very idea that elected officials are "gracious" enough to "allow" citizens to speak at their meetings should be offensive to every Oneida County citizen, and it is indicative of how these officials think about open government.
They believe that we are their royal subjects, and what they do - and the decisions they make that affect our lives - is their business and their business alone, and we have no right to see what they are doing or to question them, unless they are gracious enough to allow us to.
That kind of thinking is abhorrent, and is fatal to open government if it is allowed to persist.
Brian Desmond, Oneida County corporation counsel Oneida County corporation counsel Brian Desmond pretty much follows a standard pattern when it comes to open government. Under his direction and advice, the county seems to look for every conceivable way to deny and delay access to records.
At least give him credit for consistency. What's more, if we were in his shoes - thankfully we are not - we wouldn't want the public to see what we were doing, either. That's because he is totally incompetent in addition to being hostile to transparency.
Usually we don't get to see that incompetence played out directly. County supervisors like to cover for him, and they circle the wagons to protect their little dodo.
But every once in a great while, we get to see Desmond's incompetence in all its blazing glory, and that's just what happened this past year.
When the sheriff's department lost its records case in the Lee Lech matter to this newspaper, Times' publisher Gregg Walker asked the public safety committee who was responsible for giving sheriff Grady Hartman bad legal advice.
After all, Walker had warned Hartman, settled case law made the county's position politically absurd, and legally doomed.
Naturally, the good old boys of the public-safety committee circled those wagons and hid the dodo from view: "Who gave us that bad advice? Who? We will not tell you who, that's who?"
See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil, thus no evil. That's the motto of the public-safety committee.
Unfortunately for the little dodo, along came the sheriff and gave him away: "Who gave the bad advice? Who? I'll tell you who. Brian Desmond, that's who!"
And so we ask, since the bill for losing the case cost taxpayers about $50,000, we ask the county: Who should pay the $50,000? Who? We'll tell you who. Brian Desmond, that's who.
Anyway, aren't dodos extinct? They should be.
Oneida County should do itself a favor and get rid of the last remaining one.
I - Incomplete
Martha Milanowski, Vilas County district attorney As we've mentioned here and in past articles, Martha Milanowski, who took over district attorney duties from the retired Al Moustakis in November, has some real background in open meetings/open records laws.
It's a specialty of hers and as the corporation counsel for the Vilas County board for the past many years, she attended many of the regular county board meetings to provide guidance on a number of things, including the county board's standing rules.
When there would be changes in the county board after an election, Milanowski, in her role as corporation counsel, would make a presentation to the county board, usually within the first couple meetings with new members, on basic open meetings/open records material.
And she'd always make it clear if they had any questions, to make sure they contact her because that's why she was there.
Because of the transition Milanowski is making to county attorney - and only because of that transition - we're going to score her "incomplete" on this year's Sunshine grades.
We have no doubt, however, based on past dealings with her as Vilas County's corporation counsel, she'll come through as she always has when called.
President Donald Trump The media and open-government organizations have started to howl about the existential threat President Donald Trump poses to open government, in particular early efforts by the administration to remove certain data sets - including those related to climate change and animal cruelty - from administration websites.
The truth is, the Trump administration is way too young to judge at this point, and, in any event, the media and those same organizations never called out Barack Obama over extreme moves to shut down openness in government. In fact, they gave him an award for transparency at the very time he was trying to use the Espionage Act to prosecute government whistleblowers, a first for any president.
So far, the removal of data sets - and the administration has backed away from actually removing those datasets - tell us nothing about transparency per se. For years, the Obama administration's websites were filled with ideologically loaded and biased data sets and studies that skewed the truth about scientific assessments and inhibited true debate on unsettled questions.
For those who believe the bias, for those who succumb to the liberal myth of settled science, any attempt to restore balance to scientific debates is seen "as trying to shut down transparency." But if - and it still is an 'if' - if the president is trying to promote the balanced presentation of science on critical issues, then he is increasing transparency.
There are indeed troubling aspects about Trump's open government positions. His threat during the campaign to try to make it easier to sue reporters for libel - a position he also backed away from - was absurd, and his EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, needs to be watched, given his own conviction by a county court for violating Oklahoma's open records laws as the state's attorney general.
But it's too soon to make a judgment. What we do know is that Trump and his team need to be watched closely on open-government affairs, but so do the ideologues who often try to use open-government matters not as tools to find the truth but as weapons to pursue partisan agendas.
From outside the River News coverage area
Boulder Junction Town Board Last year, the Boulder Junction Town Board received an A.
This year, it's not going to be so good.
We're not sure exactly where the disconnect is, but town chairman Dennis Reuss, who's been on the town board nearly six years with nearly two of those as town chairman, sat down to meet with Lakeland Times publisher Gregg Walker in October after there were some questions presented about how meetings were conducted and so forth.
The Times had submitted an open records request before the Walker-Reuss meeting that revealed, among other things, the purchase last year of more than $25,000 for a piece of mowing equipment with attachments that was never formally voted on and approved at a town board meeting.
There was documentation to show a resolution done to formally identify funds that would pay for the mower and attachments.
It had been budgeted for, sure, but there was never a vote conducted to actually approve the purchase, from what we were able to find.
Walker told Reuss in that meeting if there continued to be issues, the newspaper would go to the Vilas County attorney.
There were issues. And we did.
After another open records request was submitted to the town by the newspaper the newspaper had asked Vilas County attorney Martha Milanowski to investigate the Boulder Junction Town Board for open meetings complaints.
Milanowski had Vilas County sheriff Joe Fath investigate.
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