Walworth County Government Today: Who's responsible? Open records controversy lacks clarity

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Dave Bretl | July 29, 2015

An alderman in a city where I once worked took a very hands-on approach to his job. Tim (not his real name) was a fixture around city hall and by fixture, I mean the legal definition of the word. Tim was part of the real estate. Although his position was part time, he logged more hours in the building than most full-time employees. It was impossible to avoid Tim, not that I didn't try. I established an elaborate system of alternate work sites in any office that would harbor me; in a pinch, I would work out of a study carrel in the public library. I am persistent, but Tim was relentless. On more than one occasion, when I thought I had avoided his visit, I would return to my office only to find him sleeping in my waiting room.  

Meetings with Tim were never short and invariably included one or more of a large repertoire of recurring stories that some of us eventually numbered to communicate more efficiently. Telling a co-worker that Tim covered story six was easier than describing it. No. 6 was the chestnut about how he won over a hostile county board supervisor who had harangued him on a visit to her office. After being chastised for five, 10 or 30 minutes (the amount of time varied with each telling), Tim stood up, stepped outside her office and then reintroduced himself, complete with a business card, calmly explaining that he had come to talk with her (emphasis was always placed on the word “talk”).    

I have no doubt that there was a factual basis to all of these stories although I was skeptical about the details. They were sort of parables, which always ended with the hostile party seeing the wrongfulness of their ways and thanking Tim for setting them straight.

My favorite story, No. 3, took place early in his career when he was responsible for shipping at a large factory. Tim had directed that a number of boxcars be unloaded to avoid demurrage charges that the railroad would impose for the unreturned cars. His boss didn't see it that way and countermanded Tim's instructions. Tim calmly wrote the new instructions down on his clipboard, which he was, remarkably, able to get his boss to sign. Sometime later when the bill arrived for the idle boxcars, Tim's boss demanded to know whose “brilliant idea” it was not to unload them. In response, Tim calmly retrieved the written order that his boss had signed and handed it to him. Story three did not end, as all the others did, with an apology. I never asked, but I surmised that the incident marked a turning point in Tim's career.

He spent most of his life selling insurance. I thought about Tim's passion for accountability during the recent attempt by the state Legislature to add some significant exemptions to the state's open records law.   

State legislators recently attempted to change the open records law through a motion known as 999. As I understand it, that motion has been used by both parties over the years to add last-minute items to the biennial state budget bill.  Because Motion 999 is introduced so late in the process, days before budget adoption, it is difficult for those outside of the legislature to understand and react to what is being proposed. On July 2, Motion 999, complete with the open records changes, was approved by the Joint Finance Committee by a 12-4 party-line vote. A firestorm of scathing editorials followed and by July 7, the motion was eliminated for consideration by a 33-0 vote of the Senate.

I spent this past weekend studying the drafting file and it was a little more complicated than the media portrayed it. I read in some editorials that the legislation would have shielded the records of local officials as well as state legislators.  It would have, but not nearly to the same extent. Courts ultimately would be called upon to interpret the law, but I think it is fair to say that correspondence directed to state legislators by constituents and outside groups seeking to change a law would be exempt from disclosure. As I read the proposal, a similar letter sent to a city alderman, for example, would not be.

Ironically, Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach just lost an open records lawsuit filed by a conservative think tank.  Erpenbach redacted the names and public email addresses of correspondence that he received pertaining to Act 10, which eliminated the collective bargaining for many public employees in 2011. I don't know the aim of the think tank, but learning the names of public employees who attempted to influence that legislation could provide some idea of how they were spending their workday.

If you agree with Erpenbach's decision to withhold the email addresses, you might have been fine with Motion 999. As I read the proposal, he would have been on firm ground denying the records request had the 999 provisions become law.  

A number of newspapers are on a quest to determine who was responsible for introducing the proposal. They are using the very public records provisions that were slated to be eliminated to conduct their investigation. While I have my own opinions about the proposed changes, I can't get too excited about this next phase. Like Alderman Tim's clipboard, we already know who signed onto the proposal that Gov. Scott Walker has called “a huge mistake.” Lost in this next chapter of the story is the idea that our government is based on a separation of powers.  Each of the 99 representatives and 33 state senators that we send to Madison is responsible for his or her own vote on each bill, regardless of who drafted it.
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at 262-741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.

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