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June 21, 2018

3/18/2016 6:38:00 AM
Sunshine Week: The Lakeland Times' 2016 open records grades

In honor of Sunshine Week - a celebration and advocacy of open government - The Lakeland Times presents the newspaper's 2015 awards and grades for openness in conducting public business.

The following grades are calculated using several measures, including how responsive officials have been this past year to open records' requests, how diligently they have strived to keep the workings of government open, how willing they were to communicate with the media and with the public, as well as their past track record.

The rating scale:

A - Excellent. Passionately committed to open government and accountability. The public is lucky to have these officials. They have full knowledge of the open records' and open meetings' laws.

B - Good. These records' custodians do an above-average job. They may need more knowledge and education about the law but are committed in principle to openness and side more often than not with open-records' advocates.

C - Average. These custodians need more immediate education about open government laws. They tend to respond slowly to records' requests, and they are as likely to withhold information as to release it. Still, these officials have never landed in court over an open records' dispute.

D - Below Average. These custodians do not believe in open government or in the release of open records. They usually land on the side of secrecy. These officials are suspicious of the public. They have very little knowledge of the open records' and open meetings' laws, and have even less interest in learning about them.

F - Failure. These people should be removed as records' custodians. They cannot be trusted by the public and couldn't spell FREEDOM if you spotted them F-R-E-E-_-O-M.

I - Incomplete. While it is too early to rate an overall performance in their current positions, we will record any recent actions and use their track records to calculate a "trending" rank.

This year, the newspaper is again listing failing grades first and the grades of excellent open-records' advocates last. We do so not because we want to downplay the passion and ethics of those who understand and defend open government but to draw attention to the rapidly increasing ranks of the many attacking it.

Consider them wanted posters in the post office of public records. And now, this year's grades:

F-minus - The worst of the worst

F-minus: President Barack Obama and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. This duo headed our roster of failures last year, and they earn a repeat and paired award for failure in 2016.

Just last week the president trotted on over to the South By Southwest tech conference to make the case for government access to our most private information - the data held on our cellphones and computer devices.

The president sidestepped the current FBI-Apple drama, in which the government has pressured Apple to give it a key to unlock encrypted cellphones, but he did say we should not be "absolutist" when it comes to encryption.

"If technologically it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system where the encryption is so strong that there is no key, there's no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer, how do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot?" Obama asked. "What mechanisms do we have available to even do simple things like tax enforcement because if in fact you can't crack that at all, government can't get in, then everybody is walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket."

Really? Obama thinks we all have a potential Swiss bank account in our pockets and that justifies the government's ability to reach into our most private spaces to see what treasures we have deposited? Rarely are more delusional and totalitarian words spoken.

When Obama says we must not be "absolutist," what he really means to say is that we must not be absolutist when it comes to civil liberties. History, though, tells us the protection of civil liberties must be absolute, or there are no civil liberties. You can't be somewhat free; you're either free or you're not.

You are an absolutist, or you are a hostage.

That's not all. As the Freedom of the Press Foundation reports, the Obama administration's Department of Justice vociferously opposed a bill last year to strengthen the federal Freedom of Information Act, which was actually built around policies the administration proposed way back in Obama's first year in office. Here's how the foundation put it:

"They (the administration) were against codifying the Obama administration's 'presumption of openness' policy that Obama declared upon his first month in office, they were against Congress mandating that the federal government create a unified online portal to process FOIA requests, they were against mandating discipline for FOIA redactors who break any of the rules or regulations for processing FOIA requests, and they were against providing more reporting and oversight to Congress to make sure FOIA was being complied with."

Wow. Even more wow: The legislation passed the House unanimously, 410-0, which set up a conference to reconcile the measure with a similar Senate bill already passed, also unanimously. That's when Obama and his team got active behind the scenes, brokering a deal with then House speaker John Boehner - remember that elitist goon? - to block a final vote.

In January, the House again passed the bill, this time on a voice vote. It has been sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where anything or nothing at all can happen. Were it not for the Obama administration, though, a sweepingly popular bill would already be law.

How about Hillary? Well, she flunks from the get-go since her campaign has basically promised to be Obama's third term. Well, OK, it's fair to say she has deviated slightly from some Obama policies, but what about on transparency?

We need look no further than the email imbroglio she is ensnared in to see that we would be in for more of the same, and maybe worse, if she became president. One simply cannot be committed to transparency while using a private email server to conduct government business, no matter how you cut it.

The very reason for such a server in the first place is to elude open-records requests and to be able to conduct business without that pesky public looking over your shoulder.

That's not all. A 2015 report by the nonpartisan Center for Effective Government shows that Hillary Clinton's State Department was the least transparent of 15 federal agencies examined in 2012 and 2013, based on responses to open-records requests. The report gave Hillary's State Department an "F" grade - quite aligning with our grade here - calling her department "a serious outlier" and its score "particularly dismal."

And what about all those speeches to Wall Street elites, the transcripts for which apparently exist but are locked away? Clinton says there's nothing to hide, so why not release them?

Here's how Bernie Sanders summed it up 12 days ago: "One of us has given speeches on Wall Street for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now I kind of think that if you get paid a couple of hundred thousand dollars for a speech, it must be a great speech. I think we should release it and let the American people see what that transcript was."

We agree. But don't hold your breath. Hillary Clinton and transparency are about as miscible as oil and water, or Barack Obama and democratic capitalism.

F-minus: Gov. Scott Walker. Obama and Clinton may head our list of the least transparent and thus most dangerous public officials on the federal level, but Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wins by a landslide on the state level.

The governor has been steadily moving down the charts. Year before last, we gave the governor a 'C' rating; last year we downgraded him to a 'D.' This year he excelled as a bottom-feeder by finally showing his true colors once and for all. Readers can read the details in our accompanying story today, but his fingerprints were all over the Republican Party's attempt this past year to eviscerate the open-records law.

Let's be clear. The governor did not merely try to evade the law - which he has done by trying to withhold "deliberative" documents - he did not just seek to weaken the law. The governor and his comrades sought to destroy it, to effectively repeal it.

The irony is, Walker is supposed to be a limited-government conservative who believes state agencies should be tightly controlled by elected officials and held accountable to the public. But the governor's push to exempt virtually all agency documents from public disclosure would have dramatically expanded the authority and jurisdiction of those already powerful agencies.

Giving agencies free rein to work completely in the dark would translate into a breathtaking consolidation of power for special-interest elites and their bureaucratic allies, and Walker, most of all, did their bidding. For that, there can be no forgiveness.

The only thing more insulting is Walker's executive order this week to speed responses to open-records requests and to "promote open and transparent government." The governor apparently thinks we are stupid and will buy his political rhetoric.

But the only thing transparent about this governor is his desire to serve elites and to hide as much of his special-interest agenda as possible.

He is the worst kind of politician, the very embodiment of big-government Republicanism that the country is rebelling against this election year. His is a flawed ethical character, a disfigured political soul.

F-minus: Assembly speaker Robin Vos. While Walker was busy trying to strengthen the insularity of government bureaucracies, Republican Assembly speaker Robin Vos of Rochester was trying to make the Legislature completely exempt from the records law. What a whammy, what a one-two punch if Vos had been successful.

If the Legislature became exempt from the law, it would join multiple state legislatures in doing so. An Associated Press survey just released found multiple states either exempt their Legislatures or give lawmakers broad discretion in fulfilling open-records requests.

Indeed, the AP received more denials than approvals from lawmakers in its requests for copies of lawmakers' daily schedules and emails from their government accounts. The requests went to all 50 states.

The funny thing is, Wisconsin already exempts lawmakers from the records-retention law, which means they can dispose of any record at any time, already effectively exempting the Legislature for all but the most forgetful lawmakers. Vos apparently wanted to cover their tracks, too.

Here's what the AP survey found for Wisconsin: "All of Wisconsin's top lawmakers released copies of their emails in response to the AP's request. Most also released their daily calendars. But Republican Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald said his office deletes the calendar daily and that the Legislature isn't subject to retention clauses in open-records laws."

It's worth reiterating that the AP received copies of emails lawmakers had decided to keep and had not already thrown away. If Vos had his way, lawmakers would no longer have to push the delete button to protect their secret legislative lives.

F-minus: State Rep. Mary Czaja. Among rank-and-file lawmakers, state rep. Mary Czaja (R-Irma) is particularly distinguished as an enemy of openness, the Quasimodo of the Cathedral of Open Government, where she helps organize Madison's own Festival of Fools, otherwise know as yearly attacks on open-records.

As a member of the Legislature's budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, Czaja voted with the Republican majority to effectively end the state's open-records laws. In addition, unlike other lawmakers, Czaja never expressed or showed any remorse. She doesn't like transparency, and she's proud of it. Period.

Even worse, Czaja has been a Republican leader of the effort to curb public access to CCAP, the state's online circuit court records. Here, she joins forces with Democratic liberals in trying to coddle and hide criminal behavior.

In the past, supporters of this hare-brained scheme have pushed for criminal cases that do not lead to convictions, or are overturned on appeal, to be eliminated from CCAP online information. Of course, that would distort the context of actual court records, since many cases are decided by plea bargains in which sometimes very serious charges are dismissed in return for a guilty plea on a minor charge, or on fewer charges.

In 2015, Czaja was attacking CCAP again, this time joining with liberals to purge charges against people 25 years or younger if the case was dismissed before trial, and if the charges carried a term of six years or less.

Czaja's reported concern was that potential employers and landlords would see the charge and discriminate against those people whether the charges were dismissed or not.

More likely, though, without any record on CCAP, those employers and landlords would simply Google people and find news reports about their arrests, without bothering to follow up for stories about the resolution of those cases. Without an accompanying record of resolution attached, as it would be on CCAP, the likelihood of unfair treatment increases, not diminishes.

Perhaps Czaja knows this and perhaps that's the real motive for her consistent push against CCAP. Once a special-interest hack, always a special-interest hack.

F-minus: The Joint Finance Committee's Republican majority. As a collective whole, we give an F-minus to the entire Republican majority of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee for voting for the extraordinarily late addition of the open-records law repeal.

We do so because actions speak louder than words and subsequent apologies. We also do so because we are not naive enough to believe the members of the majority learned of this maneuver only at the last minute and did not know where it came from, as they have insisted.

Indeed, one source told us there was an inkling that it was coming a week or so before it did. And if lawmakers blindly voted for such an extraordinary measure without questioning who the authors were, they are too incompetent to hold office.

Here are the responsible Republicans, so you can give them credit on Election Day: Sen. Alberta Darling, Sen. Luther Olsen, Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, Sen. Leah Vukmir, Sen. Tom Tiffany, Sen. Howard L. Marklein, Rep. John Nygren, Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, Rep. Michael Schraa, Rep. Dale Kooyenga, Rep. Dean Knudson, and Rep. Mary Czaja.

F-minus: Oneida County district

attorney Michael Schiek. What can we say about this guy that we haven't already said? Oneida County district attorney Michael Schiek still does not take open records seriously, either because he is mentally incapable of doing so or he is the puppet of Oneida County good-ol'-boys. Or both.

This year, though, Schiek did pad his resume as Oneida County's version of the classically comical buffoon and Satanic figure, our own Punchinello.

Punchinello, it seems, tried to give Oneida County supervisor Sonny Paszak cover for violating the open-records law (we give Paszak an F, too, but he doesn't merit any more space than this) and in the process ended up making himself a laughing stock.

The gist of Schiek's determination is that, for a record to be releasable, it must be an "original" document, not a copy made for use by other people. So, if a department head crafts a policy document for a county committee to consider, and distributes copies of that document to all committee members and to the committee secretary, none of those are releasable under the open-records law, according to this viewpoint.

Budgets, audits, policy memoranda, building plans - all these are copied many times over for elected officials and other authorities to use in planning and decision-making, and in the daily execution of their job responsibilities. According to Punchinello, none of those are releasable.

To reach this conclusion, Schiek had to find that legal footnotes carry no legal weight, though in fact in many court decisions they have shaped the future of important litigation, especially in the arena of civil rights.

Schiek's interpretation was ludicrous, and, as we wrote, "it's what happens when small fry like Schiek start trying to pretend, or prove, they are actually competent. So he tackles an appeals court case and promptly renders what we can only characterize as a silly interpretation of it, one he should have been embarrassed to release."

But Punchinellos know no embarrassment. They simply don't know enough to be shamed by their thinking.

That's why they are called Punchinellos - they are comical and buffoonish, carried to high art.

F - The failures

F: The Wisconsin Supreme Court. The state's courts, and in particular the state's highest court, has not been very kind to the notion of open records and accountability.

In 2015, the Supreme Court declined to review an appellate court decision that a government authority can keep a record sealed even if it is a lie crafted deliberately by the government authority. There is no verification process and no accountability.

The case stemmed from The Lakeland Times attempts to access two pages of negative comments about a potential coach at LUHS purportedly given by previous supervisors and employers. Yet the newspaper's own investigation turned up at least reasonable doubt about the veracity of those comments.

Because the appellate court determined such records are staff management notes that are exempt from the open-records law, nobody can check to make sure the government is telling the truth - not the public, not the courts, not a maligned employee. All you have to do is label the document as a staff planning document and you're home free.

The Supreme Court let this noxious ruling stand.

More recently, the Supreme Court deadlocked on a lower court verdict that police agencies do not have to redact personal information such as names, addresses, and ages from routine accident reports.

After an Illinois lawsuit, Wisconsin municipalities feared releasing such information would violate the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act, though the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the Illinois case, another federal court did not sustain it, and most states have not resorted to redactions.

In Wisconsin, where more than 70 municipalities did, a lower court found that police records relate directly to the "affairs of government" and that responding to requests for such information is an "essential function" of government - both of which provide exemptions from the DPPA.

And yet the Supreme Court could not take off its blinkers to support a ruling that, when the day is done, is completely common-sense.

F: The Wisconsin Legislature. We'll simply repeat what we said last year: This body joins the state Supreme Court as thieves of transparency, exempting themselves from the open meetings and records retentions laws, all the while protesting that each of them individually is honest and open.

It's all a very cozy situation. The Legislature passes laws they don't themselves have to follow, and then the Supreme Court rules in ways that make it easy for other officials to circumvent those laws. A win-win for the government. In the end, it seems, there really are no viable open-records laws.

We'll add this point for 2016. We are sure many Republican members of the Legislature were blindsided by their leadership's attempt to end transparency in Wisconsin. But, with only a few notable exceptions, they remained silent and on the sidelines. Respectable Republican lawmakers would have demanded the resignation of their leadership and would have openly joined the successful revolt undertaken by the people of Wisconsin.

Yet this Republican Legislature did not. We elect our representatives to be leaders, not to follow, but in this case the elected lawmakers, again with a few notable exceptions, did not even have the courage to follow the people. How very sad this Republican Party is.

F: State Sen. Tom Tiffany. Last year we called Mr. Tiffany "a breath of fresh air" in open government compared to the outright hostility to transparency some lawmakers were embracing.

This year we think he needs some mouthwash.

True, we observed last year, Tiffany had refused to do anything to end the state Legislature's exemption of itself from the state's public-records retention law, a gigantic failure given that his predecessor, Democratic Sen. Jim Holperin, had introduced legislation to do just that. Republicans refused to give Holperin's bill a hearing.

So, as it stands, lawmakers can simply throw away public records as soon as they don't need them for themselves, and just say, 'so sorry,' to people who might request them, you know, to see what they've been up to.

That's quite all right with Tiffany, who says his office retains records, but, the problem is, we asked, what about those who might not be so inclined? Tiffany has never had an answer.

Still, last year we gave him the benefit of the doubt, and we further upgraded him because of his bill to rein in the abuse of prosecutorial power in so-called John Doe proceedings. Those proceedings were long embalmed in too much secrecy, allowing prosecutors to essentially conduct political witch hunts. Tiffany's bill circumscribed the state's ability to do its dirty work in secret.

But, as a member of the Joint Finance Committee this past year, he voted with other Republicans to kill the open-records law altogether. He quickly owned up to his mistake, and he did apologize, but, frankly, it's just not enough.

It's not enough because his errant vote must be considered in the overall context of his record, which is a string of dismal years of inaction when it came to strengthening the law followed by a decisive and impulsive vote against transparency last year.

You can't commit murder, Sen. Tiffany, and then expect an apology to get you off the hook.

The only thing saving Tiffany from an F-minus is that his Northwoods cohort, Rep. Mary Czaja, is even worse than he is on open government. Hard to do, but she climbed that mountain.

Overfall, it's a pathetic record when it comes to transparency, which, for real conservatives, ought to be a top priority.

F: Sen. Lena Taylor, Sen. Jon Erpenbach, and Democratic lawmakers. Democratic lawmakers are quick to jump on Republicans for any perceived lack of transparency, but, the truth is, they don't like open government any more than the Republicans do.

They're just smarter at playing the game of secrecy.

When Democrat Jim Doyle was governor, he just ignored or sat on open-records requests rather than risk a nuclear explosion by trying to do away with the law. So, if Walker and Doyle take an IQ test, guess who we're putting our money on?

Others, such as state Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) try to fly under the radar by taking bite-sized portions out of the law. Taylor, for instance, has also tried to end CCAP transparency; so before Czaja, there was Taylor, and now they are a bipartisan tag team for secrecy.

We are amused by newspapers that feel it necessary to label bills as bipartisan when they attract supporters of both parties, as if that is an intrinsically good thing, for there is nothing intrinsically good or bad about it.

That is to say, more often than not bipartisanship just means both parties are currying the favors of special interests on a specific issue, and that's the case when it comes to CCAP.

As for state Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton), ever since the GOP shenanigans have become obvious, he has joined his Democratic colleagues in touting openness, accountability and transparency. He even called some proposed Republican open-records amendments "tragic."

How sweet. The truth is, Erpenbach is another hypocrite who will use any issue to advance himself, and he is no friend of transparency. The senator redacted the names of hundreds of people - many of them government employees on government computers - who contacted and lobbied him on the GOP collective bargaining bill of 2011. He lost in the court of appeals.

So, on the one hand, Erpenbach redacts information he doesn't want released but opposes attempts by Republicans to do the very same thing, only on a larger scale.

F: The John Doe prosecutors. If it's not against the law to beat dead horses, it should be. Last year we pointed out that the John Doe prosecutors, obsessed with pursuing Gov. Scott Walker, were still at it, even though they had already been rebuffed in the courts.

Well, guess what, they're still at it. In January, the state Supreme Court gave Milwaukee County district attorney John Chisholm and two other prosecutors, Dane County district attorney Ismael Ozanne and Iowa County district attorney Larry Nelson, permission to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decisions that shut down the investigation.

They don't have a prayer, and this witch hunt has carried on far too long. The prosecutors are nothing more than persecutors, and their egregious behavior shows exactly why the John Doe laws needed to be amended.

F: Oneida County Sheriff Grady Hartman. In the past year, The Lakeland Times has had to take the Oneida County Sheriff's Department to court to try and win the release of records related to any investigation of alleged misconduct involving or against former deputy Lee Lech, who had been put on administrative leave and banned from the sheriff's department.

Lech ultimately resigned from the department.

The newspaper also sought records relating to any and all investigations that may have been related to a second employee who had been placed on leave "for discrete periods of time," according to documents the department did release, as well as records of any investigations that may have been related to the employee placed on leave.

In January, Vilas County circuit judge Neal "Chip" A. Nielsen III ruled in favor of The Times, pending appeal, after almost a year of litigation. During that time, the sheriff's department did an about-face and released some records it had previously denied, after a "re-evaluation" of its position.

Along the way in this case, Hartman stonewalled reporters and, in clear violation of the state's public records law, severely restricted the amount of time reporters could inspect public records on any given day. His commitment to closed government is an expensive one.

Nielsen's decision casts a bright light on the sheriff's department's secretive and illegal practices, and on the public resources necessary to protect truth and accountability.

It also shows just how important the law is to make sure investigations are properly conducted and discipline properly administered in an age when little cowboys run agencies as their own personal ranches, in which employees are little more than cowhands to be whipped at will, and the public, cattle to herded and controlled.

F: Oneida County corporation counsel Brian Desmond. We have long believed Mr. Desmond cares not a whit about open-government laws or their significance, and has shown little desire to learn. Nothing changed last year to alter that viewpoint.

While we cannot point to a specific violation of the spirit or the letter of the law last year related to Desmond, the prevailing attitude around the courthouse remains one of contempt for openness - the case of Sonny Paszak this past year is exhibit A - and it likely shall remain so as long as he is corporation counsel.

Under Desmond's watch, the county has flipped the open meetings and records laws on their heads. Instead of a presumption of openness, the county seems to look for every conceivable way to kick the public out of meetings and deny and delay access to records.

D - Meets few expectations

D: Mercer School Board. Given the fact it has been two years since the Mercer School Board violated open meetings laws, but only a year since it was put on "probation" for those violations by Iron County district attorney Martin Lipske, it is difficult at this point to determine whether the board's transparency or understanding of the law has improved. Despite having been punished for past wrongdoings, school administrator Erik Torkelson in December 2015 warned a Lakeland Times reporter that he was hesitant to do interviews because of alleged unfair treatment by the paper during the 2013 open meetings case. However, in recent weeks Torkelson has since responded to some interview requests and is currently in the process of providing information related to an open records request filed by the Lakeland Times for discipline records related to a Mercer teacher.

C - Average

C: Attorney general Brad Schimel. As attorney general, Brad Schimel has made a good start on open-government issues in his first term.

Among other things, Schimel opened the attorney general's Office of Open Government and it clearly has turned out to be more than a public-relations gimmick. The office, for instance, has reduced the average response time to a request to 20 days, down from 59 days in 2014, and has significantly reduced the average time it takes the DOJ to close a public-records request over the past five years, from 89 days to 44 days.

In addition, Schimel had the guts to speak up when Gov. Scott Walker and company tried to obliterate the open-records laws last summer.

"Transparency is the cornerstone of democracy and the provisions in the budget bill limiting access to public records move Wisconsin in the wrong direction," he said.

What's more, Schimel convened an open-government summit that brought together transparency advocates and government officials for a frank discussion - the kind of summit Scott Walker promised when he was elected but never followed through on.

Still, some things mitigate Schimel's overall grade. First, at that summit, he hedged his bets on a rewrite of the law, saying changes could be made to make some records secret so that lawmakers can exchange ideas.

Not bright politics, and a dim idea to boot.

Then, too, we are still waiting for the attorney general's office to step in and prosecute cases when local district attorneys refuse to prosecute clear local violations. This has been a growing problem over the past decade.

Under J.B. Van Hollen, the DOJ steadfastly refused to step in when DAs abdicated their responsibilities, and that has only made the district attorneys refuse to prosecute even more cases because they know they won't be called out or exposed.

Schimel needs to correct that abdication of responsibility by his own office, and then we can talk about a better grade.

C-plus - Better than average

C-plus: Landfill Venture Group. The Landfill Venture Group made great strides over the course of the past year in bringing its grade up from a really pretty pathetic F or F-minus.

In February of last year, the LVG's three member executive committee fired Thea Mansavage, an employee at the County G landfill in the town of Cloverland, which is owned by 14 Vilas County municipalities.

Mansavage made allegations that resulted in a lengthy investigation by the Vilas County sheriff's department, allegations that ultimately resulted in no action by Vilas County attorney Al Moustakis and the investigation was closed in January 2015.

In early March, Mansavage, on vacation at the time, was fired by the executive committee during a meeting at the Eagle River city hall, a meeting attended by one other person, a Lakeland Times reporter.

Afterward, the reporter was asked by LVG secretary Debbie Brown to hold off on publishing the story of Mansavage's firing until she returned from vacation the following week.

The story was indeed published while Mansavage was out of town and it did result in a phone call from Mansavage to the Lakeland Times reporter who covered the meeting, asking if what she heard was true.

That was in March, 2015.

By August, the executive committee changed as two of the three members resigned and were replaced with two others who were very aware there were problems.

Mansavage filed an appeal and lost.

Here's the thing, though.

After the LVG executive committee's August meeting, The Lakeland Times requested a copy of documents regarding Mansavage that had been provided to the committee. That correspondence, which was discussed in the open meeting, turned out to be a brief letter from the LVG's attorney saying Mansavage had lost her appeal.

In most cases that kind of document would have been handed over no questions asked, however, Brown refused to give up the information without an open records request.

The Lakeland Times eventually obtained a copy of the letter without having to do a request.

Since the change in the makeup of the LVG's executive committee, things have gotten better overall with respect to how their meetings are conducted - though other obligations prevent the paper from covering every meeting.

From what we've seen, though, despite some question as to whether or not its secretary knows the law as they pertain to open meetings and open records, we feel there's been a concerted effort to improve on the part of the LVG's executive committee as a whole.

That's encouraging and considering what we gave them last year, a substantial improvement.

B - Good

B: Lac du Flambeau Town Board. The Lac du Flambeau town board receives a 'B' for their general openness, compliance and accessibility. While the town board does not leave room on regular meeting agendas for citizens to address the board, members of the public are typically allowed to speak their mind on specific agenda items once the board has first discussed the issue. Additionally, any citizen may have an item added to the meeting agenda by contacting chairman Matt Gaulke directly.

B: Rhinelander City Council. Alderpersons are very easy to deal with. They're straightforward when answering questions about issues. They promptly respond to phone calls and emails. However, everyone should speak closer to the microphones during city council meetings.

City staff, particularly Tim Kingman and Tony Gilman, are exceptional. City attorney Carrie Miljevich has been a great resource. City clerk Val Foley, deputy clerk Mary Stoll and the secretaries do an excellent job providing agendas and agenda packets. They also promptly respond to phone calls and emails.

Committee meetings are a different story. Agenda packets don't always contain all of the information pertaining to agenda items. Sometimes the committee has access to that information but The Northwoods River News doesn't. Reporters shouldn't have to chase people down for that information. Also, all of these side conversations and interruptions during the meetings are rude and distracting.

B: Winchester Town Board. The town is another area municipality that has experienced controversy over the past year with its plans to build a new town garage, which required various land swaps. Despite the disagreements between the board and plan commission, as well as several vocal residents, chairman Rick Clem has made himself available to all media requests.

B: The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Yes, our old frenemies at the DNR are cleaning up their act. Maybe. Hopefully.

Other media aren't so sure, and so we keep a wary eye out with a 'B'. Among other things this past year, the DNR got busted for keeping a "do not respond" list for people it considered persistent or abusive or simply annoying whiners.

DNR secretary Cathy Stepp says she has abandoned the list, and the department also says it fulfilled any open-records requests it received from those people. Abandoning what is effectively an "enemies list" is a good idea, since Nixonism went the way of the dinosaur years ago.

Also in January, Midwest Environmental Advocates filed a complaint that the DNR delayed responses to its open-records requests by more than six months - we'll keep an eye out on that one - and, recently, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, the DNR "discussed disciplining an employee after she provided public records to a Sheboygan County citizens group" because she went the extra mile and compiled the information into a more usable form rather than merely turning over raw data.

Now all of this sounds rather bad to be giving the agency a pretty good grade. But consider, in the latter instance, the agency employee was actually going the extra mile to fulfill the request, and the officials who reportedly wanted to discipline her - two Walker thugbots, Matt Moroney and Michael Bruhn - are no longer with the agency.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has also reported (in other words, they tried to make a big deal) that top officials screened sensitive open-records requests, but so what as long as the law was followed. Ditto with the alleged blacklist, and, well, we know a lot of complaints filed by environmental groups are so much puffery and whipped cream.

No beef, in other words.

For our part, DNR deputy secretary Kurt Thiede has been prompt and forthcoming in fulfilling records requests, and the flow of information has been frequent, lawful, timely and cooperative. You could say he is going the extra mile, for which Walker might try to discipline him.

B: The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and the MacIver Institute. We admire the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and the MacIver Institute for many reasons, not least because the nonprofit public-interest law firm and the conservative think tank stand up for constitutional integrity and free markets.

Increasingly, in the past several years, they have made a strong impression on open-government issues, too, and positively so. WILL and MacIver both took on Erpenbach, as discussed above, when the senator tried to improperly redact the names of public employees who were improperly lobbying him on collective bargaining changes in 2011. And WILL, on behalf of Wisconsin Reporter, filed a lawsuit challenging what it calls "the wholesale redaction of identifying information from routine police reports and citations."

The striking thing about WILL and MacIver is, they stand up for freedom of the press and open government no matter whether the issue involved is supported by liberals or conservatives. In other words, these two conservative organizations view open government as an essential instrument of accountability and public oversight, without which the people would have no power over the government.

They stand up for open government on principle, not on whether it aids the conservative cause.

That's not true of leftist organizations such as the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. They loudly support open government when it suits their agenda but not so much when it doesn't. They don't view open government as a nonpartisan core issue, a fundamental principle; they use open government as a tool to promote an ideological agenda.

That's why it was so disappointing to see WILL and MacIver sign on to do a series of dog-and-pony shows around the state with the Freedom of Information Council this year, ostensibly to promote transparency. Most people see the FOIC for what is, though, a leftist stunt group, a grab bag of odd carnival barkers.

It's sad to see WILL and MacIver join the circus. This could be the moment, if they do not reverse course soon, they traded substance for Cracker Jacks.

B-plus - Better than most

B-plus: Rhinelander Board of Education. Having just successfully convinced the voters to approve another three-year referendum to exceed revenue limits, the School District of Rhinelander was pretty open with voters as to the reason why it needed the money. The administration and school board members answered every question asked of them at the numerous information sessions held for that purpose. In addition to the referendum, school district leaders are prompt with requests for information from the media, make their board packets and press releases readily available and have been more open this year.

B-plus: Town of Lake Tomahawk. Contact with the board of supervisors and other town officials have been reliably positive, with all requests for additional information handled in a prompt manner. Agendas and supporting material is provided well in advance of the monthly meeting.

B-plus: Town of Three Lakes. A town facing a slew of upcoming construction projects, to include expanding the library and rebuilding the town hall into one joined building, Three Lakes has been allowing the public to attend joint meetings between the board of supervisors and the library board of directors as they work through getting the project ready to take to voters. If anything, the town could be faster in getting it's agendas out.

A-minus - Getting there

A-minus: Oneida County supervisors Dave Hintz, Bob Mott and Robb Jensen. An open-records request to an Oneida County supervisor can sometimes feel like you're screaming in a cemetery - you wonder if there's anybody home inside those bodies to really hear you.

Then along comes a form letter via the corporation counsel - because he simply doesn't want to be bothered - and the world order is restored. You can rest easily knowing the supervisors are absolutely clueless about not only the open-records law but what they are doing with millions of dollars of your tax money.

This year, though, supervisors Dave Hintz, Bob Mott and Robb Jensen all promptly and thoroughly answered our open-records requests about the county's doomed plan to sell the highway department property to Kwik Trip and to squander millions more.

They were engaged in the decision-making process and they had no qualms clueing the public in on their roles in that process. They represented different sides of the issue, but each participated on the merits and weren't afraid to reveal their beliefs.

A - Excellent

A: Boulder Junction Town Board. Over the past year the town of Boulder Junction has been considering some large-scale projects and has dealt with controversial issues, such as a developing a major roads plan and recently upping its room tax. Throughout the process town board chairman Dennis Reuss and supervisors Denny McGann and Dennis Duke have been easy to reach for interviews and responded in a timely fashion to any request for information. Despite their differences on the issues, it's clear the town board has a firm grasp of open government and public service in general, and is committed to upholding those principles. Reuss specifically has gone above and beyond his responsibilities to make sure reporters have an opportunity to review documents presented at meetings. Town clerk Kendra Moraczewski is also on-the-ball with agenda updates and is generally more accessible than her position requires of her.

A: Manitowish Waters Town Board. An influx of donations for community development projects from U-Line executives Liz and Richard Uihlein, who own property and businesses in the township, has been a source of contention in the past few years, and ultimately has led to scrutiny of town affairs from major media outlets. This has caused some in-fighting among local nonprofits and town government, however, when it comes to dealing with the media the Manitowish Waters Town Board has been completely transparent. Supervisor Eric Behnke has readily responded to media requests, while chairman John Hanson has made himself a reliable point of contact for any coverage of the town. Clerk Dana Hilbert has also proven to be a reliable source for accessing agendas and sending out updates.

A: Minocqua, Woodruff, Arbor Vitae, St. Germain and Plum Lake town boards. There are no real concerns with regard to open meetings or open records type issues with these five towns from our standpoint. All have been cooperative on occasions where we've asked for information.

In fact, in one case, the firing of long-time employee Loran Susor by the town of Minocqua in late January, the town, upon receiving an open records request for records leading up to his dismissal, included a few "attaboy" type items the town had received over the years for work Susor had done.

A: Minocqua police department. Minocqua police chief Dave Jaeger continues to be proactive in the relationship between the department and the media.

There was the occasion several weeks ago when an accident report was sent to The Lakeland Times that had all the information redacted.

That was an honest mistake and certainly not at all common practice.

A: Minocqua J1 school district (MHLT). No issues currently with MHLT with regard to transparency. There was an issue sometime back with regard to making sure the district's board of education meeting agendas had items properly agendized.

That has been addressed.

A: Vilas County government. We aren't able to cover every single Vilas County committee meeting that's held throughout the course of the month, but at the meetings we do get to, any information discussed at a meeting is shared with us there at the meeting or very soon after we've asked for it.

Vilas County clerk Dave Alleman and his staff as well as the various department heads make sure meeting notices for those committees are sent out well ahead of a meeting date, via email as well as on the meeting calendar on the county's website.

With regard to anything like a possible open meetings violation, there was really only one minor hiccup in March 2015, that occurred when members of the county's forestry, recreation and land committee took action on an item that wasn't on a meeting agenda last March and we caught them.

Gregg Walker, publisher of The Lakeland Times and Northwoods River News, sent a letter to Vilas County district attorney Al Moustakis, alleging an open meetings violation had occurred.

The county board's corporation counsel, Martha Milanowski, in the meantime obtained from The Lakeland Times a recording of the meeting and took action to correct the problem, including helping draft the agenda for the next meeting of the committee which included the item in question so action could be taken properly.

Milanowski's efforts were alluded to by Moustakis in his response to Walker as a reason he was not going to pursue the matter.

Aside from that speed bump that very well could have turned into something more had Milanowski not taken the appropriate action to fix what had been done wrong, we aren't aware of anything else.

We like that.

A: Oneida County clerk Mary Bartelt and Oneida County finance director Margie Sorensen. Never, ever an issue with these two, who also go the extra mile to provide documents. There's no change in the commitment this year.

A: Oneida County supervisors Jack Sorensen and Scott Holewinski. What was said about Jensen, Mott and Hintz goes for supervisors Jack Sorensen and Scott Holewinski, too, but they have gone even further in making sure the public is integrally involved in county deliberations.

Holewinski went out of his way to provide every available public document related to last year's proposed sale of the highway department property, while Sorensen always makes sure the media receives appropriate public handouts in zoning and other meetings.

While the press might not be denied those documents when they are asked for, these two supervisors make it a point for the public to receive the documents.

That's rare in and of itself, and Sorensen and Holewinski deserve credit for their openness.

A: Oneida County zoning director Karl Jennrich and assistant zoning director Pete Wegner. Both have been consistent advocates for transparency through the years, no matter who is running the county board or the zoning committee, and both take the time necessary to explain and break down complex issues into understandable components.

There's no change this year. Jennrich and Wegner offer access and common-sense advice to their committee of jurisdiction, commodities not often found in the halls of government.

A-plus - The best of the best

A-plus: Vilas County circuit court judge Neal A. "Chip" Nielsen. For many years, Vilas County circuit court judge Neal A. "Chip" Nielsen garnered a string of 'A' scores in The Lakeland Times' annual open-records grades.

Way back in 2008, for instance, Nielsen issued a landmark ruling that school staff and faculty disciplinary records were subject to disclosure as "a matter of principle." The ruling put to rest the notion that open-records' requests must be for the records of specific, named individuals or that requesters must provide reasons for wanting the documents.

When opponents of the request called a broader request a "fishing expedition," Nielsen quipped: "There's no limit on fishing season around here."

Nielsen disappeared from our rankings for a few years, not because he changed but because no new major issues surfaced by which to judge him again. But during that time, his actions indicated a continuing belief in open government as a matter of principle, and a bedrock principle at that.

In January, in a case involving The Lakeland Times, Nielsen again affirmed his undying commitment to transparency, and for that he earns our highest grade for 2016.

He does so not because his decision favored the newspaper - it did - but because he obviously balanced the pros and cons of disclosure of the records at hand and reached a decision based first and foremost on the public's right to know.

Until appeals are resolved, this newspaper cannot divulge the eloquence with which he made his decision. But eloquence it was, and for a principle that is hardly defended at all these days, much less with the wisdom of the ages: the public's right to know, even - and sometimes especially - in the most extraordinary circumstances.

Suffice it to say this: Judge Nielsen will not likely rule in favor of open-records advocates every time they step into his courtroom; but those advocates can rest assured that, every time, he will rule in favor of their First Principle, that the public's right to know is a sacred thing, not lightly dismissed.

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