National Sunshine Week: Open those cookies, and more

March 20, 2014

As the MacIver Institute and many other organizations across the country recognize national Sunshine Week – an initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information – we are reminded of Sen. Jon Erpenbach’s refusal to release the full unredacted emails from government employees regarding opposition to Act 10. A 2011 open records request revealed there was an organized effort on behalf of government employees to campaign against Act 10, but Erpenbach refused to release identifying information in emails that were between government employees, using government email addresses.

The MacIver Institute filed a lawsuit against Erpenbach, which is now in the Court of Appeals.

To remind lawmakers that open government is the best government, Mark Pitsch and the Society of Professional Journalists passed out Sunshine Week Fortune Cookies this week. Read his column below about the need for more transparency in government.

Open those cookies, and more

by Mark Pitsch
President, Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists

As part of national Sunshine Week, March 16-22, members of the Madison student and professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists fanned out across the capital city, handing out fortune cookies.

We dropped a handful in the offices of the elected officials, from Madison School Board to Gov. Scott Walker, as well as some unelected boards like the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents.

Each cookie contained a wise and honorable message: “You will be open and transparent when conducting public business.” “You will uphold the letter and the spirit of the Wisconsin open records and open meetings laws.” “A year of good fortune showers those who revere open government.”

The fortune cookies and their messages serve as a reminder to those elected or appointed to do the public’s business that they work for you — the voting and taxpaying public. Here are some examples from over the past year that illustrate why these Sunshine Week reminders, no matter how gimmicky, are needed:

  • We now know how brazenly Walker’s Milwaukee County executive office was in seeking to hide its business from the public, to the point of setting up a secret email system. Investigators suspect, and common sense suggests, Walker knew about the secret system, and the overt commingling of his public and campaign staffs. No one begrudges politicians from considering political calculations when making decisions, but we expect them to stay on the right side of the law.
  • Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen have argued Vukmir and all lawmakers are exempt from the records law for their entire terms in office — an unprecedented legal position that would let lawmakers ignore the law.
  • Meanwhile, Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, is fighting a legal battle to shield the names of constituents who contact him — an approach adopted by some of his legislative colleagues but rejected by other elected officials, including Walker.
  • In the waning days of the legislative session, lawmakers are considering a bill to eliminate numerous records from the state online court database. This website simply includes information that is already public record in courthouses across the state; putting it online and making it available to the public only makes sense.
  • State lawmakers snuck numerous last-minute measures into the 2013-15 state budget, including ones to create a bail bonds system and expel an investigative journalism center from UW-Madison. Credit Walker for vetoing them.
  • The same budget writers used obscure language to direct funding to a politically connected sportsmen’s group that had publicly obscured its tax status and whose leader had run afoul of hunting law. Literally, this was the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.
  • Twice, UW officials pushed language seeking to create blanket exemptions for university research. You’d think after one embarrassing beat down they would have learned their lesson. Both measures were stopped in their tracks.
  • The university and the UW System also failed to adhere to legal guidance from the Attorney General’s office to reveal the names of five finalists for their top jobs in a timely manner. The System did not release the names of all finalists until after it had chosen a president.
  • Finally, municipalities across the state are shielding information on traffic tickets out of fear that they will be sued, under a highly questionable interpretation of a federal court ruling. Curiously, no other state is taking this approach.

Let’s hope the people who received our fortune cookies take them not only to stomach but also to heart.

Cross Posted from