More barriers from government

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Creeping secrecy is becoming the norm with Wisconsin government.

THERE WAS A TIME when Wisconsin had a national reputation for requiring government transparency, with consistent bipartisan support for strong open records and open meetings laws.

The political crowd still largely gives lip service to supporting openness, but their actions frequently do not match their rhetoric.

Readers will remember when then-Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislative leaders tried to gut the Public Records Law over the Independence Day holiday weekend, backing up only in the face of bipartisan public outrage.

Wisconsin's current governor, Democrat Tony Evers, likewise has talked a better game than he plays. Evers' record on transparency has been spotty at best. Read Bill Lueders' Your Right to Know column on this page. As Lueders notes, various concerns continue.

PROBLEMS DO NOT begin and end in Madison with state government, either.

Increasingly, in communities across the state, there are reports of officials making it more difficult to access records that clearly belong to the public. Here in Rock County news organizations know all about it, because we often find ourselves engaged in disputes with local agencies of government - schools, municipalities, police and fire - over obtaining information that is, without much doubt, subject to disclosure.

For example, more and more agencies erect procedural barriers by requiring requesters to file official records requests - and then slow-walk it by taking long periods of time to respond. It's also becoming more common for agencies to questionably withhold certain information, or make broad claims of a need for redactions, or take extra time to notify a wide range of individuals mentioned in a record, most of which is not required by the Public Records Law. Rather, it often looks suspiciously like procedural impediments to openness and compliance with the spirit of the law, not anything dictated by state statutes. Make the process cumbersome enough, and maybe requesters will give up and go away.

HERE'S A KEY passage from the Public Records Law's Declaration of Policy: "It is declared to be the public policy of this state that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them. ... (The law) shall be construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access ..."

The law then sets forth a handful of sensible exemptions that do permit secrecy in narrow circumstances, such as protecting the identity of a confidential police source.

The law also addresses timeliness of response by records custodians: "... as soon as practicable and without delay."

Moreover, under the law, individuals are supposed to be able to make arrangements to visit a government office to inspect records without fees, without being asked who they are, or why they want the information. Government is expected to err on the side of accommodating citizens.

BUT PEOPLE RUN governments, and people have a natural tendency to keep secrets when that serves their self-interest. Thus, day-to-day practice often does not reflect the high principles of the Public Records Law.

Remember, though: These are not special rights granted to the press. That's good, because plenty of folks these days despise journalists, and we've never sought special access. Reporters ask a lot of questions and annoy a lot of people and draw a lot of fire. Here's how we see that: We do not need or ask for your love - we do hope you want to preserve open government and your own rights.

That's because good government laws are there to protect you - every citizen's right. And failure to protect rights today can mean they won't be there when you need them most.

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