It was a dark night in a city that likes to keep its secrets. No, wait, that’s Guy Noir, private eye, creation of Garrison Keillor. The story I’m about to tell took place in a city that used to be known for open doors and transparency of government. Used to be known, I said.
It was late at night and approaching a major holiday weekend when a new item was slipped into the massive state budget document soon to come to a vote in Wisconsin. This action, this insert of a new little piece, was done quietly. Delicately.
The Joint Finance Committee (JFC) added a policy item changing Wisconsin’s Open Records Law. They chose their timing carefully: late at night on July 2, the Thursday preceding a long holiday weekend. The Powers That Be on the JFC hoped that legislators would return to work refreshed and relaxed and completely unaware of the changes.
They were wrong. This being Wisconsin, the birthplace of progressive politics, the people found out.
The changes exempted legislative communications from the law; shut down public access to all records created in the process of drafting legislation (any rough drafts, emails, written analysis papers); and specified that the Legislature could freely exempt any record from disclosure simply by passing a rule or policy. (source: Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council) In a nutshell, legislators could keep under wraps anything they wish to hide.
In keeping with the shadowy tone of secrecy, no one on the JFC would admit to authoring or contributing to this outrageous action. Some even walked away from reporters rather than answer questions.
Let’s jump to the final chapter of the mystery. As word got out that the suggested changes had come from Governor Walker’s Office, the insertion was quietly deleted. No one knew for sure, but the scent trail led to the top, and the top wasn’t willing to risk the biennial budget to the very vocal opposition.
So, folks, Governor Presidential Wannabe Walker didn’t have to admit his role, if any, in a potential gut of Wisconsin’s Open Records Law. And therein lies the danger: whether Walker suggested the changes or not, his office climate allowed and even encouraged this kind of action.
Is this dark and sneaky atmosphere the kind of climate we want in the White House? I’ll answer that: absolutely not.