Legislators preying on transparency

WINDING ITS WAY THROUGH the Legislature is a bill that would undermine this state’s commitment to transparent government.

It must be stopped, and we’re asking readers to contact their legislators and voice their objection to AB70 and its companion bill in the Senate, SB42.

The stakes are high for people who depend on newspapers to provide information about government proceedings. If adopted, the bill would eliminate requirements to publish meeting minutes in newspapers and allow local governments to put these documents on their websites - in other words, mostly hidden from public view.

This is a classic case of the foxes guarding the henhouse. In the past, these foxes knew they were unwelcome guests. But in recent years, the foxes have become emboldened, believing the public no longer pays attention to their schemes.

That’s not true, of course.

When legislators tried in 2015 to gut open records laws through legislative maneuvering just before the Fourth of July weekend, newspapers cried foul. Legislators quickly backtracked, but the saga was a reminder that the public must remain vigilant in monitoring its henhouse.

At one time, legislators went to Madison with a clear understanding of their mission — to serve the people. But for many reasons, legislators have become increasingly susceptible to the influence of special interests, which often cleverly disguise their agendas as acting in the public’s interest.

In concocting AB70 and SB42, lawmakers cuddled up to local government officials. These two groups would never admit it, but they both stand to benefi t from keeping the public in the dark. Operating in the open can be a headache and hurdle to re-election. When constituents know what their government is doing, they have this annoying tendency to demand accountability.

Some legislators claim AB70 and SB42 will save taxpayers because governments no longer would have to pay to publish meeting proceedings. But in the long run, less transparency for the sake of saving tax dollars backfires.

Whenever government officials start to feel unaccountable, they spend even more tax dollars on perks that benefit themselves and their friends because they stop feeling concerned that the public will find out. Publishing meeting minutes and other legal notices in newspapers keeps officials honest, or at least a little more honest than they would otherwise be.

At this juncture, can we really afford policies that encourage dishonesty and validate the foxes’ pillaging of open government?

Current publication requirements maintain a strong link between government and the public, and it would be a grave mistake to downplay this link’s significance.

Unless you believe that your local government is entitled to do as it pleases, get in touch with your legislator. Tell him or her that AB70 and SB42 should die quickly, preferably while still in committee. — The Janesville Gazette, Feb. 16

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