EDITORIAL: Sunshine Week recognizes need for open government
Here’s a story that shows why open government is so important.
In 2004 and 2005, city officials from Milton, Wis., a community of about 5,500 people northeast of Janesville, held a series of closed meetings.
What they didn’t tell their own residents was that they were negotiating to have an ethanol plant built in the city.
A group called Citizens for Responsible Development was angered by the secrecy and filed suit against the city, contending that the meetings violated Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law.
A decision in the group’s favor by the state’s 4th District Court of Appeals came too late to stop the plant. But it did find that the city violated the Open Meetings Law.
Although the law allows for negotiation in closed session for the purpose of “deliberating or negotiating the purchasing of public properties, the investing of public funds, or conducting other specified public business, whenever competitive or bargaining reasons,” the court ruled that Milton officials had abused the privilege and did not need as many closed session as they had.
In addition, the city failed to notify its citizens what the sessions were about.
Wisconsin law assumes that citizens have the right to know what their government is doing — including whether the government was considering controversial development.
The appeals court ruled that “A government may have a valid reason for desiring to close its meetings that nevertheless fails to establish closed meetings are required.”
We tell you this because this week — March 16-22 — is Sunshine Week, a time to recognize the need for openness in government.
To recognize this week, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a statewide group that advocates for open government, has issued a series of awards to recognize people or organizations that had an impact on open government in Wisconsin during the past year.
Citizens for Responsible Development shared an award with Brian Buswell of Tomah, Wis., who successfully fought the Tomah School Board over a vague meeting announcement that the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled violated the Open Meetings Law.
The State Supreme Court was also honored by the group for its decision in the Buswell case and another in which it rejected a former Cedarburg teacher’s request to block the release of records relating to his being fired for viewing pornography on school computers.
State law says “all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the officials acts of those officers and employees who represent them.”
This week we remind government at all levels of those words.
— Copyright © 2008, La Crosse Tribune/Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services