Editorial: Open records are backbone of a democracy

8:33 PM, Mar. 16, 2013  |  Comments
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Sunshine Week ended Saturday, but our commitment to carry out its mission - promoting public access to government records - didn't.

In fact, some of the reporting that we and other news media did to showcase the importance of open records during Sunshine Week strengthened our resolve to seek out these records when necessary.

For example, last week, Press-Gazette Media reporter Doug Schneider had a two-part series on the availability of county emergency response plans. The report found many counties meet the minimum legal requirements - publishing an annual notice that the records exist and keeping a document on hand in a county office.

Do you know where Brown County's copy is? Prior to this report it was at the Emergency Government Office. Do you know where Brown County office is? It's at 3030 Curry Lane, on the far east side of Green Bay, next to the jail.

You could go there if you wanted to see where you would seek shelter in the case of an emergency, how you would get supplies, who would respond to the disaster.

Emergency response plans are rarely requested and, thankfully, even more rarely needed. However, they provide an important guide to officials and residents in case of an emergency. But before last week, there was only one place you, a Brown County taxpayer, could read one.

That's not the case anymore. Some counties - Outagamie and Fond du Lac, for example - already have plans online. But because of our watchdog reporting, Gannett Wisconsin Media has posted online emergency response plans for 42 of the 72 counties in Wisconsin, including Brown, on our website (http://gbpg.net/Z5RzBd), and more are in the works.

Getting the plans took time. Some counties took more than a month after our initial open records request and follow-up calls to provide their plans.

That type of contempt for an open records request, for the transparency that is the lifeline of a democratic government, is inexcusable. In his essay "The Importance of Open Government," state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen writes public records and open meetings "provide broad access to information about how our state and local governments operate. The resulting public oversight forms an important foundation of our participatory democracy."

But not every public agency or official welcomes open records requests. A bill introduced by state Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, would eat away at access to public records by allowing government entities to charge for time spent redacting sensitive materials.

We believe such a move would discourage public access because it would cost too much. Increasing the costs for public records makes for less transparency. Someone could conceivably charge so much that the very citizens who pay the public workers' salaries are priced out of the information they have a right to. Plus, the time public officials spend redacting information is part of their job, which we already pay for, so there shouldn't be an extra cost.

Our elected officials and public workers need to be accountable to us, and by ignoring or denying requests or charging so much that people are discouraged from seeking the information allows them to skirt accountability.

We as a media company hold dear our right to access public records. That access allows us to be the government watchdog that our subscribers expect us to be and that the average citizen might not have time to be.

With a democratically elected government, we must be able to keep tabs on the actions of those we elect or pay to represent our best interests. So we cringe at any attempted infringements of the state's Open Records Law and we will fight for more transparency in how public officials carry out their duties.

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Football fans

If you've ever answered "Who has the ball?" with "It's halftime," you might recognize The Airhead. Check out the characters in our cartoon gallery of oddball fans.

Special Reports