Last week, the Washington Post began trumpeting a new slogan: “Democracy dies in darkness.”
The new catchphrase is a reminder that bad things happen when powerful people can’t be held accountable for the decisions and actions they make that affect other people’s lives and dollars.
This is as true in Ripon as it is in Madison as it is in Washington, D.C.
Ripon taxpayers and their children are most at risk when aldermen or School Board members huddle together behind closed doors to conduct public business in private.
The classic and expensive example on the city level is the Boca Grande development disaster when, after many closed meetings of the City Council, taxpayers had no opportunity to weigh-in before Mayor Aaron Kramer and Developer Jim Connelly inked a deal that enabled the Milwaukee businessman within fewer than 12 months to withdraw $6.87 million in city-borrowed funds from a city of Ripon escrow account with no strings attached.
But this incident does not stand alone. ...
As recently as last week, the Ripon Area School Board selected a new member to replace Dan Zimmerman by voting using “a secret, signed ballot.” There was no legal authority for this to be confidential. ...
* * *
All of this is prologue to the latest efforts to shield the public from information about decisions elected officials are making on its behalf.
Gov. Walker has introduced a budget — and several state legislators have proposed a law — that no longer requires public bodies to publish meeting minutes, budgets or ordinances in the local newspaper.
These measures would require governmental units, instead, to post such notices on their websites.
In a Jan. 24 memo to their colleagues, the bill’s authors suggest the public need not worry about meeting minutes because they (boldface and underline is theirs) “are the record of already conducted business — not prospective actions to be taken.”
The implication is that decisions made are less important to the public because they are a fait accompli. Nothing to see here. Go about your business and know we’ve taken care of you, kids.
This is patronizing, arrogant and un-democractic.
... The governor and certain legislators assume either 1. you will seek out minutes on the city council/school board/county/technical college websites, or 2. you won’t miss what you don’t know.
True, newspapers including the Commonwealth derive revenue — albeit a fraction of their income — from publishing public notices. But the newspaper industry is fighting these measures not for pecuniary reasons, but for the same fundamental need for openness that prompts it to so vigorously champion open meetings and open records statutes, shield laws and freedom of information efforts.
While it’s in vogue to cast the media as the “enemy of the American people,” absent a means to communicate what those who govern are doing to the governed (and how they’re spending the public’s dollars), the public risks losing control over those who prefer to work in the dark.
And then democracy dies.
— Tim Lyke
To read the entire editorial, see the March 2, 2017 edition of The Ripon Commonwealth Press.