Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. March 15, 2022.
Editorial: Public access is non-negotiable
National Freedom of Information Day is not a public holiday. But there is no doubt that today’s reminder of the importance of open and transparent government is something Americans should mark well.
US laws guaranteeing public access to most government documents and meetings are, in general, not as old as one might think. Many date back around 50 years, to the immediate aftermath of the Watergate scandal. The government’s response then was laudable, an effort to ensure that the people have the right to inspect what officials do on their behalf.
Human nature, however, says things become less pressing over time. And, of course, we have seen governments back down in recent decades. Many federal agencies’ responses to Freedom of Information Act requests are so slow that they suggest deliberate efforts to withhold information.
States are not subject to FOIA standards. It is a federal law that applies to federal agencies. State access is subject to the laws of each state. But even there, resistance to the plain language of the law is disturbingly commonplace.
Most state laws contain a provision allowing personnel records to remain out of public view, and in many cases this is entirely appropriate. But these provisions also have limitations. When these limits are exceeded, it can be very expensive for taxpayers. Chicago records show that three of the past six years have seen the city pay at least $500,000 in legal fees for abusive denials of access to public records. In a request for all letters denying access between January 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021, the Chicago Police Department declined. He said collecting all the letters would be “unduly burdensome”. In other words, there were so many denials that collecting them would take too long.
The Chippewa Valley is not Chicago, but the instinct to hide, to cloak public access to public records, is not absent either. In December, after months of resistance, the Eau Claire school district reluctantly released some basic information about its equity committee. And even that release, forced only after the persistent efforts of a reporter, claimed that the committee in question had failed to keep minutes of its meetings as required by law.
The damage caused by such actions is not without consequence. Trust in government and civic institutions has been declining for decades. Governments that act as if they have something to hide do nothing to stem such declines. Instead, they speed it up.
We are currently seeing dramatic examples of what happens when governments take away people’s basic right to monitor what they are doing. In Russia, contradicting government statements on the ongoing war against Ukraine is now punishable by 15 years in prison. Independent media have virtually disappeared. It’s unclear how many people are currently behind bars for questioning President Vladimir Putin’s recklessness.
Even in the midst of such repression, it is impossible for governments to control free thought. Maria Ovsyannikova, an employee of a state television network, blocked a live broadcast with a sign protesting the war, saying the state was lying to people. She did so knowing full well that it would likely mean her arrest. She was indeed arrested.
To state the obvious, the United States is not Russia. The situations of those who seek information that our government prefers to keep secret are in no way comparable to those of Russian citizens who defy their dictator.
There are, however, parallels in the way people react to a lack of information. Human nature is to fill in the blanks with explanations that make sense to people, and there is no guarantee that those explanations will be accurate. When people then act on these explanations, they can make serious mistakes.
Public oversight is not in place to hinder public servants, but to ensure that those in positions of public trust act in accordance with that trust. This is to ensure that people have information with which to judge whether they are well served by those in such positions.
As such, public oversight is a tool we dare not let go of. It’s just too vital to our common future. The public’s right to know what local, state and federal governments are doing is, and must remain, non-negotiable.
Kenosha News. March 13, 2022.
Editorial: Lawmakers must exercise caution before adding more school terms
To say that the last two school years have been a challenge is an understatement. The traditional school year was cut short two years ago in March 2020. Only now, two years later, are things starting to return to normal. In addition to COVID, schools have faced under-shortages and, like all businesses, have had to contend with inflation and rising gas prices.
Yet on top of all that, members of the state legislature want to throw more mandates at schools.
Doing a quick search through the Assembly bills proposed in the last session, at least four bills have been proposed that would add new teaching requirements for schools. One bill demands a new African American history curriculum, another demands a new civics curriculum. There is also the proposal to require a financial literacy credit for all graduates and another to require at least one hour of voter education at each grade level. It is only a legislative session.
Maybe some of them are good ideas for school boards if they’re not already doing it, like financial literacy. But, the legislature must be careful before creating more mandates for schools.
When schools are faced with a new mandate from the state, they have to look at their resources to figure out how they’re going to do it, and often they don’t get a pile of money to hire someone new. That means they have to delete something else. What will it be?
This could mean that a popular elective must be removed because that teacher must now teach the new required course. This hurts the school and the students, who were eager to go to school because of this optional class.
On top of that, it seems like all of these new terms are partisan with either Republicans or Democrats behind them. They are rarely bipartisan. Given that we currently have a divided government, that means they are not enacted. But what happens when one part takes full control, and then the next? That would mean we’ll have two years of GOP terms, followed by law reversals and two years of Democratic terms. It makes your head spin trying to think about it.
School boards and school administrators should continually evaluate the program and update what is taught to ensure that all graduating students are ready for the real world. But lawmakers should be careful about introducing too many new mandates. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle must remember that everything has a cost and unintended consequences.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.