Monday, May 12, 2008

From Madison To Waukesha To Crandon, Government Secrecy Disrespects The People

Seems like everywhere you look - - or should I say everywhere you try and look - - media and citizens are being told by government censors that they they know what's best, so public information will stay private.

Examples abound:

State and local officials continue to dribble out all it knows about the shootings in Crandon last October, where an off-duty officer murdered six young people, and then died from what is now said to be a self-inflicted gunshot.

Why have both local and state law enforcement handed out this information piecemeal?

Also take the drafting of a very important piece of state legislation - - the bill that will put into effect the Great Lakes Compact in Wisconsin, and thus determine water access and communities' growth patterns for years.
After the bill passed the State Senate 26-6 in March, State Assembly leaders would not bring it to a vote, but worked behind the scenes with both Democrats and the state Department of Natural Resources to write a so-called compromise, while:

A) All parties are refusing to disclose significant amending language, and;

B) Declaring their intention to bring the bill to a vote without a public hearing. Details here.

The draft was released Tuesday, with a likely vote Wednesday, and no hearing. Not a strong case on behalf of public participation.

The same pattern has unfolded in Waukesha, where the city council and water utility regularly go into closed session to discuss various aspects of that city's water planning.

Details from Jim Bouman, a Waukesha blogger and community activist, are here.

And let's not forget that New Berlin's application for a Lake Michigan diversion was reviewed and distributed to the other Great Lakes in secrecy - - disclosed by Michigan officials first, then in Wisconsin - - and that Waukesha twice sent confidential applications for Lake Michigan water to Gov. Jim Doyle in 2006.

Those I disclosed on when I found them through Open Records at the offices of the Waukesha Water Utility - - hardly the preferred method of introducing major policy plans into the public square.

And it was confidentiality that ruled the so-called process at the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC), which recently hired a new executive director for the Pewaukee-based, public agency without a job search, hearing or any intentional publicity.

It's an agency that receives 100% of its funding from taxpayers, but shut them out of any role in the process to find a new leader.

So hearings. No solicitation of candidates. No opportunity to interview the candidates - - well, the hand-picked candidate who was moved from Deputy Director to Executive Director by a SEWRPC committee.

Not even any help writing a job description for the 21st century from the people who pay all the agency's bills.

Zip. Nada. Nothing.

And finally, there has been a growing tendency in Madison to withhold information about high-profile crimes.

Bill Lueders at Isthmus had a particularly strong piece about this, with the Brittany Zimmerman homicide as the context.

WISC-TV, which is Madison's CBS affiliate Channel 3 and the Capital city's biggest station, recently condensed into an editorial why a government's penchant for keeping things confidential creates more problems than it solves.

Here is the text, and it should be required reading for state legislators and local officials outside of Madison, too:



The Brittany Zimmerman murder investigation is profoundly troubling on many levels. Certainly the fact it is the third of a string of recent unsolved murders apparently involving strangers is disconcerting as it should be.

Let us never be blase about murders in our community.

But the Zimmerman case has shed further light on a significant trend in the Madison Police Department – secrecy. And this policy of secrecy is causing the public to lose confidence in a police department that is risking its credibility.

Increasingly, the public and the news media serving as the voice of the public, finds the Madison Police department divided into camps – those who think no information at all should be made public, and those who think as little as possible should be made public.

The results include questions, rumors, fears, misinformation and the risk of an eventual loss of trust.

What a price.

There are legal, ethical and limited public safety considerations. We understand all of them.

But the current position of the Madison Police Department, and by extension the city, is that open records, the public's right to know, and open government are no longer important.

We'll have more to say in editorials to come, but suffice to say for now – we disagree.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You would think that after all these years and after all the examples they have, that they would understand that secrecy, rather than lessening the public interest, always causes it to grow.

Maybe one of these days they'll learn, but I doubt it.