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Editorial: Enforce Sunshine laws

Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has invited the public to join in celebrating the state’s “sunshine laws,” the public records law and the open meetings law during Sunshine Week this week.

By shedding light on the workings of government and the acts of public officers and employees, these laws greatly facilitate our system of democratic government. Understanding how they work is critical to their success, so Van Hollen encourages everyone to utilize the following free resources:

—Visit the open government web site for resources including attorney general opinions, the Wisconsin Public Records Law Compliance Outline and Wisconsin Open Meetings Law Compliance Guide, seminar video recordings, sample forms and other advisory guidance.

—Call the Department of Justice at (608) 266-3952, leave a message and receive a return call from an open records or open meetings expert.

—Write Van Hollen at P.O. Box 7857, Madison, WI 53707-7857.

—Attend an open government seminar in the fall. One will be an internet webinar participants can attend from their own computer, with the date to be determined. Seminar registration will open after Labor Day on the Department of Justice website,

But Mike McCabe, executive director of the nonpartisan watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, cautions laws are only as good as their enforcement. McCabe claims enforcement of the open meetings laws has grown increasingly lax in recent years, and prosecutions of clear violations of the sunshine, public records and open meetings laws are less frequent.

When secrecy is condoned and a government official pays no price for failing to honor the public’s right to know, others notice. They see people can disrespect the law and get away with it. This breeds among public officials a culture of contempt for Wisconsin’s traditions of open government.

Good laws not properly enforced become worthless laws. The state’s open government laws are headed fast in that direction if they’ve not already arrived.

The latest symptom of the illness appeared in the wake of a state appeals court’s order to make public close to 28,000 pages of emails uncovered by criminal investigators during a now-completed John Doe investigation. Six associates of the governor were charged and ultimately convicted of various crimes.

No one was charged with violating the state open records law, however, in spite of the fact the criminal probe revealed government employees’ widespread use of personal laptop computers, private gmail accounts and even a secret wireless router to hide information about their activities and frustrate Freedom of Information requests by the media and general public.

Much has been written and said about some of the more salacious content in these emails, including tasteless and even bigoted remarks by several of Gov. Walker’s aides. Defenders of the governor insist it’s much ado about nothing. His critics see grounds for his removal from office. Neither side seems to be giving much if any thought to the implications of this case for open government in Wisconsin generally and the open records law specifically.

If the use of gmail and laptops and the like by government workers to circumvent the open records law isn’t condemned and prosecuted, it’s effectively deemed acceptable. This will not be lost on state legislators, or on members of city councils and local town, county and school boards. Those running state and local agencies will notice, too. The practice will become standard operating procedure.

Our open records law is invaluable to democracy, and it’s on very thin ice. A law is only as good as its enforcement and the enforcement of this one leaves it—and the public it serves—in great peril.

Let’s agree to rededicate efforts to preserving the open government laws in Wisconsin—some of the nation’s finest—during this special week.