Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. March 15, 2022.
Editorial: Public access isn’t negotiable
National Freedom of Information Day isn’t a holiday. But there can be no doubt today’s reminder of how important government openness and transparency are is something Americans should mark well.
American laws assuring the public’s access to most government records and meetings are, generally speaking, not nearly as old as one might think. Many date back about 50 years, to the immediate aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Government’s response then was laudable, an effort to ensure that the people have the right to inspect what officials are doing in their names.
Human nature, though, says things become less pressing over time. And, sure enough, we’ve seen governments backslide over the past several decades. Many federal agencies’ responses to Freedom of Information Act requests are so sluggish as to suggest deliberate efforts to withhold information.
States are not subject to the FOIA standards. It’s a federal law, applying to federal bodies. State access falls under the individual states’ laws. But even there resistance to the plain language of the law is disturbingly commonplace.
Most state laws have a provision allowing personnel records to remain outside of the public’s view and, in many cases, that’s entirely appropriate. But those provisions also have limits. When those limits are exceeded, it can be very expensive for taxpayers. Records from Chicago show three of the past six years saw the city pay at least $500,000 in legal fees from improper denials of access to public records. In one request for all the letters denying access between Jan. 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021, the Chicago Police Department refused. It said gathering all the letters would be “unduly burdensome.” In other words, there were so many denials that gathering them would take too much time.
The Chippewa Valley isn’t Chicago, but neither is the instinct to hide, to improperly draw a veil over the public’s access to public records, absent. In December, after months of resistance, the Eau Claire school district grudgingly released some basic information about its equity committee. And even that release, forced only after persistent efforts from a reporter, claimed the committee in question hadn’t kept minutes of its meetings as required by law.
The damage wrought by such actions is not inconsequential. Trust in government and civic institutions has been on the decline for decades. Governments that act like they have something to hide do nothing to stem such declines. Instead, they accelerate it.
We’re seeing dramatic examples right now of what happens when governments eliminate the fundamental right of the people to oversee what they do. In Russia, contradicting the government’s statements about the ongoing war against Ukraine is now punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Independent news outlets are all but gone. It’s unclear how many people are now behind bars for questioning President Vladimir Putin’s recklessness.
Even amid such repression it is impossible for governments to control free thought. Maria Ovsyannikova, an employee at a state television network, crashed a live broadcast with a sign protesting the war, saying the state was lying to people. She did it with the full knowledge it would likely mean her arrest. She was indeed arrested.
To state the obvious, the United States is not Russia. The situations involving those who seek information our government would rather keep under wraps are in no way comparable to those of Russian citizens who defy their dictator.
There are parallels, though, in how people respond to an absence of information. Human nature is to fill in the blanks with explanations that make sense to people, and there are no guarantees those explanations will be accurate. When people then act on the basis of those explanations, they can make serious mistakes.
Public oversight is not in place to inconvenience officials, but to ensure those in positions of public trust act in accordance with that trust. It is to ensure people have information to let them judge whether they are being well served by those in such positions.
As such, public oversight is a tool we dare not discard. It is simply too vital to our shared future. The right of the public to know what the local, state and federal governments are doing is, and must remain, non-negotiable.
Kenosha News. March 13, 2022.
Editorial: Legislators must take caution before adding more school mandates
To say the last couple school years have been a challenge is an understatement. The traditional school year was cut short two years ago in March 2020. It’s only now, two years later, that things are starting to get back to normal. In addition to COVID, schools have faced sub shortages and like all businesses have had to deal with inflation and now increasing gas prices.
Yet on top of all of that, the members of the state Legislature want to throw more mandates at schools.
Just doing a quick search through Assembly bills proposed this last session there are at least four bills that have been proposed that would add new teaching requirements for schools. One bill requires a new African American history curriculum, another requires a new civic education curriculum. There is also the proposal to require one credit of financial literacy for all graduates and another to require at least one hour of voter education instruction in every grade level. That is just one legislative session.
Maybe some of these are good ideas for school boards to look into if they are not doing it already such as financial literacy. But, the Legislature needs to be careful before creating more mandates for schools.
When schools are faced with a new state mandate, they have to look at their resources to determine how they will do it and often they are not handed a stack of money to hire someone new. That means they need to cut something else out. What will that be?
It could mean that a popular elective course has to get cut because that teacher now has to teach the new mandatory course. That hurts the school and the students, who looked forward to going to school because of that elective class.
Besides that, it seems all these new mandates are partisan with either Republicans or Democrats behind them. They are rarely bipartisan. Since we currently have a divided government it means they don’t get signed into law. But what happens when one party does take full control, then the next party? That would mean we’ll get two years of GOP mandates, followed by law reversals and two years of Democratic mandates. It makes your head spin trying to think about it.
School boards and school administrators should be continually evaluating curriculum and updating what is taught to ensure every students graduates ready for the real world. But legislators need to be careful before putting too many new mandates in place. Legislators on both sides of the aisle need to remember there is a cost to everything and unintended consequences.