Right, wrong reasons for open records requests
Jennifer Abplanalp, Opinions Editor
April 13, 2011
Filed under Opinions
Good and fair democratic government is fueled by the public’s belief and trust in the transparency of that government. Remove that transparency and that trust and accountability is lost. To maintain that transparency, open records laws are vital for maintaining the accountability of those in charge.
In recent weeks, requests for records access through Wisconsin’s Open Records Law have been made for two very different circumstances.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin (RPW) requested the e-mail archives of University of Wisconsin history professor William Cronon on March 17, two days after he published a study guide informing and raising legitimate questions into the actions of the GOP’s national agenda. An agenda orchestrated by Washington-based think tanks and conservative, corporate-friendly advocacy groups, especially the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
While the legality of the records request made by the RPW of professor Cronon is not in question, it is, however, in direct contradiction to the spirit of the law.
They have arguably attacked his constitutional rights to free speech and a long held belief in academic freedom and it sets a dangerous precedent for the suppression of academic freedom. The attacks on professor Cronon are a barely disguised attempt to discredit and embarrass a distinguished and nationally recognized academic for having written a blog that shows the GOP in an unfavorable light.
Just because it’s within the law, doesn’t make it right.
More recently, questions have been raised into the validity of the numbers and the legality of the election for State Supreme Court justice last week. Representatives of JoAnne Kloppenburg’s Supreme Court justice campaign to file a request for records through the Open Records Law on April 8.
Wisconsin residents turned out at the polls in record numbers for the spring election that pitted conservative incumbent Justice David Prosser against relatively unknown Assistant Attorney General Kloppenburg. Prosser’s self-proclaimed alignment with Republican Governor Scott Walker’s agenda led voters in large numbers to support the independent and declaratively impartial Kloppenburg.
This huge voter push shrunk, in just a few weeks, Prosser’s 30-point lead following the February primary to a photo finish on Tuesday night. Out of nearly 1.5 million votes cast, The Associated Press reported that Kloppenburg had the lead over Prosser, by 204 votes.
Then on Thursday, the results of the canvassing done in each county began to trickle in.
In Waukesha County, one of the most conservative counties in the state, county clerk Kathy Nickolaus discovered that she had forgotten to include Brookfield, the second largest city in the county, in the numbers she submitted to the media on Tuesday night. These more than 14,000 votes, which gave Prosser a 7,500-vote lead over Kloppenburg, completely changed the dynamic of the race.
Following revelations that the conservative Nickolaus, who has worked for Prosser in the past, had a history of questionable practices and mistakes raised suspicions of either fraud or gross incompetence. These suspicions warranted the open records request, and were well within the spirit of the law.
Wisconsin has a solid tradition of open and transparent government, but that tradition has been mauled by the current Republican-led administration.
Additionally, it’s apparent from the RPW’s malfeasant application of the Open Records Law on professor Cronon to the detriment of academic freedom, that the administration of FitzWalkerstan wants nothing less than a dictatorship.
Kloppenburg’s campaign has made appropriate use of the Open Records Law. It is a fight not merely for the minute possibility of triumph in the State Supreme Court race but for transparency and accountability in our election system and subsequently, our state government.