- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 7

Public deserves answers on assault on open records

Facing a hurricane of criticism, Gov. Scott Walker and state legislators have scrapped - at least for now - a brazen attempt to limit access to state public records. But that by no means is an end to the issue; there are still questions that need to be answered.

The measure that was slipped into the state budget Thursday by 12 Republicans on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee would have set new exemptions to the open records law, including one that would explicitly create an exception for “deliberative materials.” Such an exception would make it impossible for the public to see how state, local and school officials made their decisions. The measure also would have made a number of records from lawmakers’ offices inaccessible to the public.

The public reaction was quick and virtually unanimous, with groups from all sides condemning the attempt to shut off these records from public view, and Republicans quickly backed off. On Tuesday, the Journal Sentinel reported that the exemptions had been removed.

The legislators need to make sure it stays that way; not even a hint of these changes can be allowed to stand. But the legislators need to do more than that. They need to answer some troubling questions.

Where did the idea for these exemptions come from? Who first proposed them? Who pushed them? Legislators have remained silent on that issue; at one point, when asked, state Sen. Alberta Darling said the request had come from multiple sources and then turned and walked away from the reporter asking the question, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. That borders on cowardice. But no one else has been any braver. Republicans remain silent on the specific author or authors of the proposal. That silence should end. The public deserves to know where these proposals came from.

To borrow a phrase: What did Gov. Scott Walker know and when did he know it? Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Tuesday that Walker’s office was involved with creating the exemptions, and Walker’s spokeswoman confirmed that. But before participating in Wauwatosa’s Independence Day parade Saturday, Walker told reporters that he had “a lot of concerns” about the proposals.

If he had concerns, what was the extent of his involvement? And if he had concerns why, as Journal Sentinel reporter Patrick Marley noted in a Tuesday article, had his office been behaving as if one of the exemptions already applies to the governor? Two months ago, Marley reported, Walker declined to release records related to his proposal to rewrite the University of Wisconsin System’s mission statement and erase the Wisconsin Idea from state law. He argued he didn’t have to provide those records to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and others because they were part of his office’s internal deliberations.

A more detailed explanation of the governor’s involvement in making these changes is certainly warranted.

Finally: When will legislators stop slipping things into this budget that have no business being there? The records changes were a terrible idea that alert watchdogs were able to catch. But this and other items never should have been put in the budget to begin with, a practice that Republicans and others such as the Journal Sentinel rightly criticized when Democrats were doing it. It’s time to end this gamesmanship.


Wisconsin State Journal, July 5

End state’s witless attempt to hide public records

State Republican leaders dishonored the July Fourth celebration of liberty and democracy this weekend by trying to slip sweeping secrecy provisions into the state budget.

About the only good thing you can say about this shameful episode is that Wisconsin GOP leaders dropped their fool’s mission - at least for now - on Saturday afternoon, after enormous backlash from media and good-government groups, some elected officials and private citizens.

Now the public must stay on guard for further attempts to undermine Wisconsin’s proud tradition of government transparency laws. The State Journal most definitely will.

Hoping to minimize scrutiny, Republicans who run the Legislature’s budget committee waited until the eve of the holiday weekend late Thursday to try to exempt state lawmakers from Wisconsin’s longstanding open records law. The committee, led by Rep. John Nygren of Marinette and Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills, rushed several provisions undermining transparency protections into a larger package of budget amendments.

The sneaky attempt didn’t work. Nor will cowardly efforts to dodge responsibility for this colossal political blunder.

Nygren and Darling still won’t say who requested the exemptions from records law, or if Gov. Scott Walker - now a candidate for president - knew about them. And in abruptly announcing Saturday all the provisions will be pulled from the budget, the governor and legislative leaders pretended the secrecy push was intended to protect the public.

That’s ridiculous. The real mission was to protect the politicians from the public.

Among several troubling passages tucked in the budget Thursday was this doozy: “No provision of the state’s public records law that conflicts with a rule or policy of the Senate or Assembly or joint rule or policy of the Legislature applies to a record that is subject to such rule or policy.”

In other words, state lawmakers could do what they want, when they want - and taxpayers would be in the dark. The offensive secrecy measures would have blocked the public from reviewing nearly all records created by lawmakers and their aides, including electronic communications and the drafting files of legislation in the 2015-17 budget.

Reasonable Republicans, or so we thought, such as Sens. Luther Olsen of Ripon and Howard Marklein of Spring Green shouldn’t have gone along with this legislative garbage, as they did Thursday by voting for the omnibus budget amendment approved along party lines. All of the secrecy language should have been strongly rejected by acclamation.

Open government laws aren’t a partisan virtue of a free society. They require all leaders, regardless of political affiliation, to let the public peruse their records and actions.

Unfortunately, in their statement Saturday, Gov. Walker and GOP leaders suggested the embarrassing attempt to play hide and seek with the public’s business may come back, though they’re actually going to allow a little public notice and discussion this time.

A better solution is to bury these bad ideas once and for all. Any politician who continues to support similar attacks on Wisconsin’s open records law in the future will never receive the endorsement of the State Journal.

Moreover, this newspaper will use every investigative mechanism and journalistic capability possible, including seeking opinions of the court, to shine an even brighter light on legislative action. Our readers should expect no less of a free press.


The Journal Times of Racine, July 5

DNR made the right move on hog megafarm

When both sides in an issue want a government agency to take the same action, it’s probably the way to go.

Reicks View Farms of Lawler, Iowa, wants to build a hog megafarm in Bayfield County, which has Lake Superior as part of its northern border. It would be the first megafarm in the Lake Superior basin, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, and would be situated about seven miles from Ashland and Chequamegon Bay.

But the proposed megafarm is ringing alarm bells for residents and local officials, who fear that the manure from thousands of pigs could wash off the land and pollute Lake Superior.

The locals asked the state Department of Natural Resources to require an environmental-impact statement, which is the most rigorous study the state can require. The process also requires public hearings.

But Reicks View Farms made the same request of the DNR. (Last week), the state agency did just that.

In an email to the Journal Sentinel, Gene Noem, director of swine operations for Reicks View, said: “While we do not believe that conducting an EIS for this type of farm is required under Wisconsin law, we do believe that it is an efficient, transparent and effective way to evaluate our farm.”

Ashland residents get their water from Chequamegon Bay. The potential of algae blooms spurred by manure runoff could harm drinking water supplies, said Ashland Mayor Debra S. Lewis.

Nancy Larson, Lake Superior program coordinator for the DNR, said the analysis necessary to formulate the environmental-impact statement could take several months: The DNR will solicit input from the public, then study topics including the potential of manure and spreading practices to harm the watershed. There will be a draft report, upon which the public will be provided an opportunity to comment.

Reicks View said it selected Bayfield County precisely because it has very little hog farming. It’s far from the hog-intensive areas of Iowa, Minnesota and southern Wisconsin, where animal diseases could spread more readily.

The company plans to house 7,500 sows, 18,750 pigs and 100 boars, it said in records filed with the DNR.

That’s a lot of manure. Residents of the area near the proposed megafarm location are naturally concerned about that manure ending up in Lake Superior which, thanks to its remoteness and shortage of industry on its shores, is the cleanest of the Great Lakes, with an average underwater visibility of 27 feet.

When that’s your source of drinking water, you’re naturally inclined to resist the prospect of it being polluted.

But that concern might be misapplied when it comes to the Reicks View proposal. DNR documents show the hog barns would be enclosed, and that manure would be stored in pits beneath the barns; most of the state’s large dairy farms use open pits to store waste.

Air filtration and venting systems used on European hog farms would minimize odors, according to Noem. Manure would be injected 6 to 8 inches into the soil, using a state-approved plan that manages the amount of waste to avoid it from being overapplied.

This will “significantly reduce the risk of runoff,” he said.

Is that enough to satisfy Bayfield County residents? Would that information lead the DNR to deem approving the megafarm an acceptable risk?

It’s too early to say. Data must be collected and study must be conducted.

In the meantime, the decision to first collect that data and conduct the study is the right decision for balancing economic interests and quality-of-life interests. The DNR made the right move.

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