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June 21, 2018

3/16/2018 7:28:00 AM
Sunshine Week 2018: The Lakeland Times' and Northwoods River News' open records grades (Part One)
Grades from A to B

In honor of Sunshine Week - a celebration and advocacy of open government - The Lakeland Times presents the newspaper's 2018 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.

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

A+Best of the best

Vilas County circuit court judge Neal A. "Chip" Nielsen

This past year, we encountered no significant new rulings on open records by Vilas County circuit court judge Neal A. "Chip" Nielsen, but we continue to give him The Lakeland Times' highest honor because of a lifetime of accumulated work, which is a consistent body of rulings dedicated to preserving the principles of open government.

One might call it a lifetime achievement award for his work to date.

The words we used last year are equally applicable today and are worth repeating:

"In January 2016, in a case involving The Lakeland Times, Nielsen again affirmed his undying commitment to transparency. We say 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.

"It was an eloquent decision, 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.

"We know that 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."

Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty

This is the first appearance on our list for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, and the legal and educational group debuts impressively at the top of the list with judge Nielsen of Vilas County.

WILL is a conservative-oriented group committed to classical liberalism and constitutional government, but its conservative principles have not stopped it from working with groups supporting open government from across the ideological spectrum. WILL considers transparency a core principle and an essential one in a free society, and it work backs up its words.

That's the way it should be.

For example, as we report elsewhere, this past month WILL sued state Rep. Jonathan Brostoff for printing out electronic records and charging record requesters on a per-page basis instead of simply sending the files electronically or putting them on a CD or flash drive, or even sending them by email, as many custodians do.

WILL is really suing the entire Wisconsin Assembly, because Brostoff was merely following Assembly policy. WILL is right - Assembly policy violates the law. Not only that, but the Assembly is adhering to such a policy for one reason and one reason only: It is trying to make access to public records more costly and difficult. Why else invest so much effort in printing out what could easily and more quickly be transferred electronically?

In the past, WILL has successfully sued and won cases related to citizens' rights to receive records in a timely way, to attend school-book selection committee meetings, and to prevent redactions of basic information from law enforcement incident reports and citations. All in all, WILL has provided a valuable and necessary service in upholding the public records law in a time when it is under attack in all three branches of government.

Newbold Town Board

Always quick to offer any relevant documents or answer questions, the Newbold Town Board deserves to be held in the highest regard. Throughout the ongoing subject of ATV routes in the town, town chairman Dave Kroll, along with supervisors Ed Hammer, Jim Staskiewicz, Bob Metropulos and Mike McKenzie, have been thorough in their explanations to the citizens of the town, along with the media.

A great deal of credit should go to town clerk Kim Gauthier and treasurer Jodie Hess, who are on top of and up to date with town matters. Gauthier is relied upon heavily in the bi-monthly town board meetings, where she delivers in an organized, and efficient manner.

Newbold Town Board meetings are swift, and stick closely to the printed agenda. Kroll is firm with his aversion to drifting off-topic and is very aware of open meeting laws. Other towns should look to the Town of Newbold if they are interested in running in a more methodical, productive manner.

Minocqua town clerk Roben Haggart, Woodruff town clerk Christine Woynich, Arbor Vitae town clerk Mary Reuland, Manitowish Waters town clerk Dana Hilbert, St. Germain town clerk Tom Martens, Presque Isle town clerk Lorine Walters

It's been our experience in working with each of these town clerks their interest in keeping things as transparent as possible when it comes to open records and open meetings for their respective town boards is evident.

For the most part, we shouldn't really single any one of them out in that respect as each excels in their responsibilities.

However, we will.

In Presque Isle, Lorine Walters helps to keep recent town board meetings there from getting more out of hand and off the agenda than they have at times.

Roben Haggart of Minocqua not only provides information nearly instantly when asked by The Lakeland Times but also frequently assists town chairman Mark Hartzheim during the meetings as well.

St. Germain's Tom Martens, town clerk since the early 1970s, is not always popular in certain town circles when it comes to certain items he's taken a personal stance on in recent years, such as the future of the red brick school house or part of a snowmobile trail he didn't want in the very front of his yard.

Those sort of things aside, he continues to work with us when we've requested information from him and from the town's standpoint, is actually valuable when it comes to providing some historical background for the town on some different items.

Arbor Vitae's Mary Reuland is another of the most knowledgeable town clerks in the area.

Dana Hilbert of Manitowish Waters is another steady town clerk.

Christine Woynich, Woodruff's town clerk, took over from Kim Albano, yet another stellar performer in the town clerk role in the Lakeland area.

Woynich has been very responsive to questions and requests for information we've sent her way and even though in the position a relatively short time compared to the others, is coming along, as far as we're concerned, nicely.

Vilas County finance director Jason Hilger

There may be some department heads and Vilas County supervisors who may not always agree with finance director Jason Hilger (in fact, his nickname in certain circles is "Dr. No") but county financial records since he was hired in 2012 show there's no denying the steady, overall positive impact he's had on county financials since getting the job.

In just the past couple years, he's helped guide the county highway department into a position he was looking to have it: out of the red, for the most part, and a facet of county government not totally dependent on the county budget for funding on a year to year basis.

Under Hilger's guidance, a two story, multi-million dollar courthouse addition has been constructed, the financing of which he helped put together in a way designed to mitigate the effect on the tax bills of Vilas County residents, all while keeping the county's general fund balance in a healthy $7 million to $8 million range.

That "healthy" fund balance sometimes tends to rankle some within county government and they let their feelings be known at a committee meeting here or there or maybe even a meeting of the full county board, the belief being if it's needed to fund different programs or initiatives, it should be used.

That's another story.

With The Lakeland Times, though, Hilger is more than accommodating when it comes to information we ask for and helping in understanding where he's coming from regarding a financial item and its budgetary effect, one way or the other.

A Excellent

Vilas County clerk/county board

Once again, Vilas County clerk Dave Alleman is excellent in providing information when asked and helping Vilas County board chairman Ron DeBruyne on the "straight and narrow" when it comes to making sure meetings of the Vilas County board are conducted properly and within parameters of state open meeting law.

The same can be said of meetings of the several committees the county board has that are covered on a regular basis by The Lakeland Times.

Lakeland Union High School

Once again, both as a board and an educational facility, officials at LUHS deserve praise for their commitment to open conduct.

Meetings run efficiently and document requests are often granted immediately after a board gathering if they are not included in the information packets routinely provided to The Lakeland Times and other media outlets.

Principal Jim Bouché is easy to reach via phone or email and makes effort to reach out or refer the press to others who can help when presented with media questions, even when occupied at out-of-town conferences.

For its commitment to transparency and by providing regular email updates from district secretary Lisa Kennedy, LUHS has earned one of the highest grades on the scale.

Oneida County supervisor Robb Jensen

When it comes to transparency, Jensen is someone who gets it. Whether it is through asking intelligent and probing questions of other officials in meetings, making himself available to the media for interviews or giving away copies of his own documents to reporters who request copies of information, his commitment to transparency is superb. All in the county should follow his example.

Town of Woodboro

The town of Woodboro has been forthcoming with any requests for further information. The town is cognizant of staying on topic and limiting discussion and action to agenda items only. The board is always willing to hear public comment. Agendas and meeting times are always posted well within the time allowed, and usually much earlier. Special public meetings are called when needed and are also posted well in advance.

Towns of Minocqua, Arbor Vitae, Lake Tomahawk and Plum Lake

We really don't have any issues at this time with any of these towns.

The various office staffs in these towns are very cooperative and timely in responding to information requests from The Lakeland Times.

Each town chairman knows how to run town board meetings.

Minocqua town chairman Mark Hartzheim, to avoid any "vagueness" issues as they relate to state open meetings law, has removed the monthly reports of Mark Pertile, the town's public works director, and Dave Jaeger, the chief of police, from meeting agendas.

The town of Plum Lake has a bit of an issue at the moment involving all terrain vehicles and utility vehicles but town chairman Will Maines, as far as we've seen so far, has allowed people on either side of that issue opportunities to weigh in when appropriate during town board meetings.

Town of Pine Lake

The town of Pine Lake posts meeting times and dates, as well as agendas, well within the required time frames. They have always been easy to work with and requests for further information on any topic have always been complied with in a timely manner. The board follows each meeting agenda and welcomes any and all public comment at all of the meetings.

Town of Crescent

The Crescent Town Board strictly follows agenda items and does not allow conversations to stray from those items. They allow for 15 minutes of public comment during each meeting, which has proved to be more than ample. They have been forthcoming with any information requests from the Northwoods River News. Meetings are always posted well within the allotted timeframe and agendas available.

Town of Cassian

The Northwoods River News has never had any transparency-related issues with the Cassian Town Board. Although much of the board is fairly new, they seem to have a very firm handle on open meetings and open records laws. They adhere to agenda items at every meeting and not only welcome, but encourage, pubic comment and suggestions at every meeting.

Town of Hazelhurst

The Hazelhurst Town Board is vey diligent with posting their meeting agendas, times and dates. These have all been posted within the allotted time frame. The board adheres to the agenda and does not deviate. Any requests The Lakeland Times has had for further information have been met with graciously and the information delivered in a very timely fashion. The newspaper has not had any transparency-related issues with the Hazelhurst Town Board. They seem well aware of open meetings laws and abide by them well.

Rhinelander Police Department

The RPD has a long-standing relationship of openness with the Northwoods River News. A representative of the department meets weekly with a reporter of this paper to go over police reports and keeps us informed of the department's activities. The few times the newspaper has filed open records requests with the department, it has been prompt in turning over the information. Officers from the department on scenes of accidents and fires have been mindful of the needs of our reporters in covering the events while at the same time keeping them out of harms way.

Rhinelander Fire Department

Like their brethren in blue, the RFD has always been open with this newspaper. Chief Terry Williams and his command structure are extremely responsive to phone calls and emails seeking information. Leadership is also good about keeping reporters informed at the scene of fires.

Oneida County Planning and Development Committee and staff

The committee - comprised of supervisors Scott Holewinski, Jack Sorensen, Dave Hintz, Billy Fried and Mike Timmons - along with zoning director Karl Jennrich and assistant director Pete Wegner, have been extraordinarily transparent with the media and public for years. There was no change this past year, and we applaud them for their openness.

Citizens for Education in Town Governance (CETG)

CETG is a group of volunteers in Lac du Flambeau who attend town meetings, take notes and post recordings online, allowing access to town governance to everyone. Their website includes copies of town budgets, ongoing town board business, information on public records law, a list of the town's ordinances and the minutes, agenda and recordings of town board meetings. All of these are free, downloadable files which anybody with internet can access.

In days when government is becoming less transparent, "watchdog" groups like this one are essential. Learn more about CETG at cetg.weebly.com.

Woodruff Town Board

The Woodruff Town Board raises no real concerns regarding open meetings or open records type issues.

Woodruff Town Board is generally open and compliant.

The only issues were one meeting that was not properly posted and chairman Mike Timmons voting on his own insurance policy, which was corrected at the next meeting.

Vilas County Land and Water Conservation Committee

The Vilas County Land and Water Conservation Committee does have a contentious meeting from time to time, but there have been no transparency issues or issues of points of order with this committee. Chair Kim Simac, and vice chair Holly Tomlanovich are always conscious of the agenda and sticking to the topics listed there. Meetings are alway properly posted in a timely manner. At any time, if there has been a question of regarding a point or order, the chair, or vice, in her absence, has been quick to contact corporation counsel before continuing on in a "better safe than sorry" scenario. The Times has never had an issue collecting any needed information from this committee.

Oneida County Conservation and UW-Extension Education Committee

The Oneida Conservation and UW-Extension Committee meeting agendas are always properly posted well within the given time frame. Bob Mott, the chair, ensures the committee adheres to the agenda. Any requests for further information have been handled quickly and fully. There have been no issues regarding transparency with this committee.

Minocqua and Woodruff police departments

Minocqua police chief Dave Jaeger has let us know more than once he's a firm believer in being as transparent as possible.

And he continues to prove that, making sure if he doesn't personally get us the information on a matter we're seeking through something such as a press release, someone else does.

Woodruff's police chief, Lenny Drewson, also makes sure his department works with us within parameters of open records law as well as his department's policies.

B Good

School District of Rhinelander

Rhinelander schools have made an effort of late to be more open and transparent, but this has not always been the case. The target of frequent open records requests, superintendent Kelli Jacobi has a mixed record in timeliness on responses, with some coming right away while others are delayed while seeking an opinion from the district's lawyer first. But there has been some improvement in the past year, which is reflected in SDR's grade this year.

Lac du Flambeau School Board

The Lac du Flambeau School Board receives a 'B' because of its transparency and openness. At meetings, the materials the board discusses are all copied and laid out on a table so attendees have the opportunity to pick up a copy and review the materials with the board. The board also, to keep the meetings more organized, puts bullet points of items being discussed under broad sections, such as "superintendent's report" and "business." The board does not receive a higher grade because during an open meeting they incorrectly accused an article of being full of falsities.

Vilas County Sheriff's Office

Yes, we'll go with a B on this one this year.

Ironically enough, an incident that kind of left Sheriff Joe Fath's department with some egg on its face also helped the grade.

We realize he and his staff took a huge "heat round" when one of the suspects in the Wayne Valliere, Jr., murder case tried to turn himself in at the Vilas County Jail on Feb. 9 but was turned away and told to go to Iron County by members of the jail staff.

19-year-old James Lussier did indeed walk away, which resulted in a statewide manhunt that ended several days later with his apprehension by authorities in Oshkosh.

After Fath conducted an internal investigation, two members of the jail staff resigned, another was demoted and there could be other disciplinary measures taken against other staff members.

If we were to give that mess a grade, it would probably be in the D or maybe F range.

Maybe a "That never should have happened" type grade.

Or "What in the world were those on duty at the jail that night thinking?" type grade.

No, these grades are about getting information from the department, such as information regarding traffic accidents that may be go with a photo we have that may be released to the general public.

People like Pat Schmidt, the department's chief deputy, are responsive to media queries regarding different items, which is greatly appreciated.

Then there's responding to things like a media query Fath received from The Lakeland Times regarding "the Lussier incident" at the Vilas County Jail Feb. 9.

We sent our email asking about Lussier's attempt to turn himself to Fath and he called our office to tell what he knew had happened within 15 minutes.

He gets kudos for that sort of openness and transparency.

Oneida County sheriff's department

Last year we thought it was too much to say that Oneida County chief deputy Dan Hess and sheriff Grady Hartman had seen the light and were following it to open government, though we noted progress had been made.

Well, this year there been even more progress. The sheriff and Hess turn over records and are more cooperative when answering media requests than at any time since the heyday of openness under former chief deputy John Sweeney. We can even imagine sheriff Hartman as Jake in the Blues Brothers movies, when a heavenly light shines down on him and the Reverend Cleophus James asks him if he has seen the light. Jake yells, I HAVE SEEN THE LIGHT! and apparently the sherriff and Hess are right there singing and dancing with him.

President Donald Trump

The president is a hard man to define, beyond being a populist and a nationalist. He is neither a liberal nor a conservative, and on issues like open government his place on the political spectrum is even harder to pin down. Still, we give him high marks for trying to drain the swamp of Washington, D.C.

Yes, it's true the White House wrongly closed down visitor logs so we don't know who is traipsing in and out of the people's house all the time. But on other issues, the president has been treated unfairly. He has been accused of scrubbing "data" from federal websites, but a lot of that was just fake science and propaganda, particularly about climate change.

He also threatened to end White House briefings, but why should he give briefings to mainstream media outlets who are just going to distort what he tells them? He did not end the briefings, but he did open them up to alternative news outlets in an attempt to level the playing field with the globalist press. That's a huge victory for an open society.

And where President Obama tried to tighten the screws on whistleblowers, Trump has embraced them. His nominees to the agency that protects federal whistleblowers are strong advocates for them, and the president last summer signed a law creating an Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Best of all, there's the president's tweets, off the cuff information most bureaucrats would never like to see the light of day. The mainstream press likes to help the bureaucrats suppress information, but Trump's twitter feed makes all the difference in the world. Score the president high on openness.

B-Better than average

Town of St. Germain

We don't really have an issue with the town of St. Germain at this time but there was one incident we're going to ding them for.

During the summer of 2017, The Lakeland Times filed an open records request with the town of St. Germain.

According to the minutes of a special meeting of the town board held July 19, the town board, among other items, met in closed session to discuss, among other things, "a new hire for the Public Works Department, Zoning Administrator's Job Description as it relates to the Public Works Department and ambulance service for the Town."

Once the town board reconvened into open session, town supervisor John Vojta made a motion to "extend an offer for employment, as discussed in closed session, to one of the applicants at $12 per hour plus the customary benefit package."

He left the person's name out of the motion, seconded by supervisor Doug Olson. The first attempt to get the name of the person by The Lakeland Times occurred after the meeting.

Over the course of the next few days, town clerk Tom Martens referred inquiries about the person the town board hired to Vojta and Christensen.

An email was sent by the newspaper to the entire town board and Martens, once again asking the name of the person.

Christensen answered the email, saying the person in question "has not accepted the position yet so we will not be releasing his name."

"Once he has accepted the position and notified his present employer that he is coming to work for the Town, we will release his name," he said.

Vojta later sent Christensen an email saying the town's public works director/road foreman, Tim Ebert, was back from vacation.

"I have spent the afternoon on and off the phone with Tim Ebert," Vojta wrote. "After many calls, Tim has reached an agreement with Rick Arbaugh and will now hire Rick to fill our position advertised for the Public Works Department. I will have Tim notify the other applicant that the position has been filled."

As it relates to that person who ended up being the final candidate for the position and hired - in this case, Arbaugh - not disclosing that person's name appears to be a violation of Wisconsin open meetings law.

In fact, information pertaining to that person - his or her resume, for example - was a matter of public record even before the closed session.

"'Final candidate' means each applicant who is seriously considered for appointment or whose name is certified for appointment, and whose name is submitted for final consideration to an authority for appointment, to any of the following," the law reads, the "following" to include a local public office or position.

According to the law, "final candidate" also applies to "at least five applicants for an office or position ... who are considered the most qualified for the office or position by an authority."

The law also pertains to the situation when there are fewer than five applicants for an office or position.

Tuesday afternoon, The Lakeland Times filed an open record request with the town of St. Germain.

"You are hereby notified that The Lakeland Times is making an official state of Wisconsin open records request for the following records," Lakeland Times publisher Gregg Walker wrote in an email to Christensen. "We are asking for all closed session meeting minutes, agendas for closed sessions and the reason why the board went into closed session from July, 1 2016 to July 24, 2017."

Since then, there hasn't been a problem.

In fact, Christensen has taken steps to avoid further problems, including the removal of vague items from meeting agendas.

Oneida County Clerk Tracy Hartman

In her interactions with The Lakeland Times, Hartman has been open and honest and more than willing to provide documents and make copies of items when requested, but, she is failing to handle a key transparency problem.

In December, Hartman was alerted by the media about more than 150 instances where the minutes, an agenda or both items from a meeting were not posted online for the public to examine.

Though this is not a violation of public records law, it does violate Oneida County Code which requires these items to be posted online within 10 days of being approved by a committee. Hartman said her office would do better, but as of March 5, there are still meetings missing information.

Yes, people could come down and obtain copies of data, but for those who can't, the internet is their source of information. Hartman needs to do better on this if she wants to receive a better evaluation in the future.

Sunshine grades continue on in our other articles...

Reader Comments

Posted: Saturday, March 17, 2018
Article comment by: Brian Bennett

Nobody cares.

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