This week is “Sunshine Week,” a national effort to promote the importance of open and transparent government.
Pausing to recognize Sunshine Week in Wisconsin means acknowledging what a terrible year it has been for transparency and open government in our state.
Throughout the past year, Wisconsin’s time-honored tradition of clean, open government has been severely tarnished.
Started in 2002, Sunshine Week is spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors, who, along with civic groups, libraries, schools, and nonprofit organizations, work to allow the public more access to and information about its government.
The actions of Wisconsin’s legislative leaders over the last year have made a mockery of the idea of open government celebrated nationwide by Sunshine Week.
Last June, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court struck a blow to Wisconsin’s longstanding tradition of open and accessible government. In a controversial opinion, the state’s highest court ruled that the state’s Open Meetings Law does not apply to the legislature.
In her dissent, Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote, “By this interpretation, the constitutional right of the people to know what its legislature is doing has been significantly minimized if not eliminated.”
As a result of the ruling, the legislature is now free follow its own rules when it comes to open meetings—even if those rules violate the law or provide no public notice of a meeting.
In response, we authored legislation to close the legislature’s loophole in the Open Meetings Law.
Unfortunately these measures were defeated on the floor of the Assembly, with every single Republican voting against our efforts to make sure Wisconsin’s state government always stays open and accessible to the people.
What a mistake, to depart like this from our state’s longstanding, bi-partisan commitment to open government.
This historic Supreme Court decision came on the heels of peaceful protests in the State Capitol by Wisconsin families, teachers, firefighters, police officers, farmers and other citizens. Gov. Walker unfairly and inaccurately characterized these courageous Wisconsin citizens as out-of-state “union thugs” to justify his decision to literally lock Wisconsin citizens out of their Capitol.
Several legislators who took their offices to the people, by moving their desks outside in the cold, swiftly found their Capitol office windows screwed shut and locked.
There could be no more apt symbol for how the Walker administration feels about citizens’ access to government then the locked doors, locked windows and restricted entry to the statehouse itself.
And this year, Republicans continued to trample on open government by drawing new election maps in the most secret, closed door manner possible.
Instead of using an open and bipartisan process, Republican legislators signed secrecy oaths and conducted legislative business behind closed doors at private law firms – all at the taxpayers’ expense.
Their actions were so galling that a panel of federal judges – a majority of whom were appointed by Republican presidents – denounced it as a ‘shameful attempt to hide the redistricting process from public scrutiny.’
If a democratic government is to have the trust and confidence of its citizens, its actions must be open to the public.
The public has a fundamental right to participate in the process and to have a clear and unobstructed view of the actions of every level of government.
Scott Walker and legislative Republicans have ignored and degraded Wisconsin’s tradition of open government and have instead acted as if they are above the law.
The dark cloud of secrecy and scandal that now hangs over our once proud government and the people’s trust in their elected leaders will only be lifted by a return to open and transparent government.
In 1933, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis observed, “Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant,” to combat corruption in government.
As we mark Sunshine Week 2012, it is clear that Wisconsin’s Legislature needs a strong dose of disinfectant if we are to have any hope of restoring our longstanding reputation for clean, transparent and open government.