There were more heroes than villains in this year’s Openness Awards, or Opees, bestowed annually by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. In fact, in two categories, there was more than one winner.
Both a former state employee who rebuffed a committee’s efforts to embrace secrecy and an attorney who launched a law firm devoted to transparency are being honored as citizen openness advocates, while the state’s two largest newspapers tied in the category of open records scoop of the year.
Awards are also being given to former state Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson and to a Lafayette County official who blew the whistle on an ill-advised plan to threaten the news media into compliance with its wishes.
The awards recognize outstanding efforts to protect the state’s tradition of open government, and highlight some of the threats to it. This is the 14th consecutive year that Opees have been given.
“This year, more than ever, we are reminded of the importance of fighting for access to public records and meetings,” said Bill Lueders, council president. “The laws remain strong only because of the efforts of people across the state to use and defend them.”
The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a nonpartisan group that seeks to promote open government, consists of about two dozen members representing media and other public interests. Sponsoring organizations include the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, Wisconsin Associated Press and the Madison Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Awards are being given this year in six categories. The winners are:
Political Openness Award (“Popee”): Shirley Abrahamson
Throughout her 43 years on the state Supreme Court, Abrahamson was a champion of open government. Many of her opinions affirmed the public’s right to know, including the majority opinion in a 2012 case to bar officials from charging requesters for blacking out records and two dissents in the 1990s. Abrahamson opposed the court’s decision to shield some of its business from public view. She even prompted the founding of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council back in 1978. Abrahamson, who retired in July, once joked that Wisconsin might rightfully be known as “the Sunshine State.” It certainly shone brighter because of her.
Citizen Openness Award (“Copee”): Tie: Kevin Wymore and Tom Kamenick.
Wymore, a former state employee, spent years fighting to obtain records from a University of Wisconsin advisory committee charged with distributing millions of dollars to health-related projects. Last year, he won a major victory when a Dane County judge, in a decision that was not appealed, ruled that the committee violated state open records and open meetings laws when it denied his request for information about the grant-awarding process.
Kamenick, meanwhile, left his job with the Wisconsin Institute of Law & Liberty to launch the Wisconsin Transparency Project, the state’s first law firm devoted to open government litigation. He has already filed several lawsuits and helped dozens of people in their pursuit of records and access. “When they don’t follow the law, we’re here for you,” he writes, Sadly, it looks as though his business will not want for clients.
Media Openness Award (“Mopee”): Amanda St. Hilaire
This reporter for FOX6 in Milwaukee aired in-depth investigative reports on how state legislators, alone among state and local public officials in Wisconsin, reserve the right to destroy records at will and how the clerks in both houses refuse to release records regarding allegations of misconduct against lawmakers and their staffs. The station, represented by Kamenick, is now suing Gov. Tony Evers for initially refusing to release records without the requester providing limited search terms. Her continuing work in this area deserves recognition.
Open Records Scoop of the Year (“Scoopee”): Tie: Wisconsin State Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
State Journal reporter Kelly Meyerhofer used public records to tell the tale of a UW-Madison researcher whose lab was considered so “toxic” it may have contributed to a grad student’s suicide. Her reports led to student protests, new restrictions on the researcher and a commitment from the university to start tracking complaints of hostile and intimidating faculty behavior.
Also honored are Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters John Diedrich and Kevin Crowe for their exposé of the sometimes deadly practice of ambulance diversion. Using medical records and deep data analysis, the duo identified 21 cases nationwide where people died after their ambulance was diverted to another hospital. There are now efforts to ban the practice, in Wisconsin and across the nation.
Whistleblower of the Year (“Whoopee”): Kriss Marion
When this Lafayette County supervisor saw that local officials had drafted a resolution threatening to “prosecute” reporters who failed to print verbatim what they were told to print about a water quality report, she sounded an alarm that drew national attention and resulted in the resolution being tabled. It takes guts to stand up to one’s colleagues; Marion rose to the occasion.
No Friend of Openness (“Nopee”): The Wisconsin Legislature
Lawmakers have not for the first time earned recognition in this category for their institutional aversion to transparency. This includes their refusal to even consider state Sen. Chris Larson’s bill to prevent them from selectively deleting their own records, and their misbegotten and ultimately failed effort to shield the names of lottery winners. Special negative mention goes to Chief Clerks Jeff Renk and Patrick Fuller, for withholding investigative records that would give the public information about accusations of wrongdoing.