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Monday, June 22, 2009

Partisanship A Poor Excuse To Support Sunshine

Saturday's Janesville Gazette contained their editorial supporting Assembly Bill 143. Titled "Call Lawmakers today and demand open budget process," the newspaper takes great offense to the direction taken by the legislature to fill the state's budget hole and their freedom to regroup in partisan caucuses in an effort to reach a consensus. Both Wisconsin state houses have Democratic majorities.

The paper also attempted to demonstrate what a local governmental body such as a non-partisan city council must do in order to stay in compliance of Wisconsin's Open Meeting Laws, while the state legislature has exempted itself from obeying the same rules.
JG Editorial Excerpt:
Just who, you might ask, enacted an open meetings law that rightly forces local councils and school boards to conduct business in the light of day but allows state lawmakers to shut out the public? Why the legislature of course.
Nearly every Janesville city council meeting ends in a closed door session allowing them to conduct business often involving thousands of tax payer dollars, in the dark of the night. This is legal because the Wisconsin state legislature granted them and all governmental bodies and their agencies thirteen statutory exemptions to do so. I don't recall the Gazette complaining about those closed door meetings. But the Gazette not too long ago did complain about the closed door negotiations between the Janesville school district and the local teachers union. Unfortunately, that position by the Gazette seemed to be more of a media based complaint for the lack of news content, than by any disposition of theirs to open government on behalf of the general public.

One point here is that local governmental bodies appear to have equal if not greater freedom to conduct business behind closed doors than the legislature does. The other point is the Gazette's activism for open government appears selective and driven by their partisan differences with the legislative majority instead of a genuine desire to turn on the lights within all levels of government, particularly those on their own turf.

For many reasons I have less trouble with our legislators and representatives meeting together as partisans behind closed doors than I do with the same legislators or government agencies meeting with private interests, so-called taxpayer groups, media or corporate lobbyists behind closed doors. Yet they are allowed to do so under collective bargaining or for competitive reasons among others. It's all legal because the legislature and courts say so. That's not to say I support any of it, it's just the pecking order of where I place my trust.

AB 143 doesn't solve the apparent split personality of Wisconsin's political climate, but it is a step in the right direction that might eventually lead to bipartisan legislative debates. If enacted, I only fear that it could be abused politically and wind up as a toothless law duping the public into believing government no longer operates in the shadows.

Rock Netroots companion piece to this posting.

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