Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Legislature needs to practice what it preaches

Not all that long ago the Pleasant Prairie village board had two identifiable factions -- Village President John Steinbrink, sr., and fellow incombents Steve Kumorkiewicz and Mike Serpe vs. newcomers Jeff Lauer and Alex Tiahnybok.

Suppose President Steinbrink wanted to discuss some upcoming village business behind closed doors with Serpe and Kumorkiewicz. No doubt their opponents, if they caught wind of this, would beat a path to the District Attorney's office to complain that this secret closed meeting violated the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law.

The very next day State Representative Steinbrink could get behind closed doors in Madison for a secret caucus with his fellow Democrats in the Assembly and, guess what? It's legal.

That's because the legislature exempted itself from the very law that city councils and village, town and school boards throughout the state must obey. In so doing they violated their own expressly stated spirit of the Open Meetings Law found in Wis. Stat. s. 19.81:

19.81 Declaration of policy. (1) In recognition of the fact that a representative government of the American type is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state that the public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government as is compatible with the conduct of governmental business.

(2) To implement and ensure the public policy herein expressed, all meetings of all state and local governmental bodies shall be publicly held in places reasonably accessible to members of the public and shall be open to all citizens at all times unless otherwise expressly provided by law.

(3) In conformance with article IV, section 10, of the constitution, which states that the doors of each house shall remain open, except when the public welfare requires secrecy, it is declared to be the intent of the legislature to comply to the fullest extent with this subchapter.

(4) This subchapter shall be liberally construed to achieve the purposes set forth in this section, and the rule that penal statutes must be strictly construed shall be limited to the enforcement of forfeitures and shall not otherwise apply to actions brought under this subchapter or to interpretations thereof.

Pretty strong language -- except that buried beneath this lofty language are several exceptions including one that permits legislators to meet in secret partisan caucuses. That means that what Village President Steinbrink couldn't get away with legally in Pleasant Prairie is perfectly legal when he puts on his legislator's hat in Madison.

Bear in mind, folks, that caucuses are power meetings where the parties formulate their policies and attack plans and, in essence, often predetermine how the legislature is going to handle the public's business. Sure, it's mandatory that the public gets to see the dog and pony show on the floor of the Assembly and state Senate but the wheeling and dealing where the public's business is really vetted is done behind closed doors.

The Wisconsin State Journal says it's high time the legislature end this double standard but don't hold your breath. I have a better chance of being the next poster child for Jenny Craig.

2 comments:

Village People said...

"it is declared to be the policy of this state that the public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government as is compatible with the conduct of governmental business." What an interpretation people can have with that statement.

any mouse said...

...that's reason enough to run for office right there!