Each year since 2007, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council has given out Openness in Government awards, or Opees, to worthy recipients. Most are positive, including one this year to Gov. Scott Walker. But there is a negative award, and others highlight less-than-commendable players.
The awards, part of the Council’s observance of national Sunshine Week (sunshineweek.org), March 11-17, will be presented at the eighth annual Wisconsin Watchdog Awards dinner in Madison on Thursday, April 19.
The winners are:
Citizen Openness Award (“Copee”): Joe Terry
This former village administrator for Port Edwards in central Wisconsin alleged multiple open meetings and ethics violations by the village board. His complaint to the Wood County district attorney led to the appointment of a special prosecutor and ultimately to a settlement requiring some officials to receive training on the state’s openness laws.
Media Openness Award (“Mopee”): Tim Damos
A reporter for the Baraboo News Republic, Damos broke multiple stories this year exposing the lack of transparency favored by officials in Sauk County. Some involved a former county administrator who received a $135,000 contract buyout. Some involved the county’s former highway commissioner who solicited NASCAR tickets from a contractor. Damos’ paper, based on his reporting, has filed a lawsuit and lodged a complaint alleging additional violations.
Political Openness Award (“Popee”): Scott Walker
Last March, for the second year in a row, Wisconsin’s governor issued an executive order ordering state agencies to improve their performance on open records requests. It directs them to track and post their record response times and limits how much they can charge. It also requires “regular training for all employees and members of all boards, councils, and commissions.” Walker’s efforts in this area, including his executive order in 2016, are much appreciated.
Open Records Scoop of the Year (“Scoopee”): Wisconsin State Journal and Media Milwaukee
Pushing back against official secrecy, State Journal reporter Molly Beck reported on sexual harassment complaints against four lawmakers, including one that led to a $75,000 settlement, while colleague Nico Savidge exposed weaknesses in UW-Madison’s harassment reporting procedures and pulled back the veil on multiple accusations involving a particular professor. And UW-Milwaukee student journalists at Media Milwaukee unearthed dozens of allegations of harassment involving professors and other staff.
Whistleblower of the Year (“Whoopee”): Will Kramer
This industry risk-management and safety consultant refused to keep quiet about the dangers posed by industrial barrel recycling plants. He secretly recorded one plant manager remarking that the drums “could blow up and kill eight people in a heartbeat.” When government regulators failed to act, he went to went to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, spurring that paper’s remarkable “Burned” investigation, which led to significant fines and safety improvements..
No Friend of Openness (“Nopee”): The Wisconsin Legislature
This year, lawmakers from both parties denied requests for records of sexual harassment investigations and refused to provide electronic records in electronic form. The Republican majority also held secret meetings to hash out budget details, continued to conduct business by using abusive mail ballots and selectively blocked access to their social media accounts. Lawmakers need to clean up their act, before next year’s awards.
Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Bill Lueders is the group’s president.