WNA members fight back against surprise Fourth of July open records attack

By Holly Henschen
WNA Communications Director

WNA members stood guard on behalf of the public’s right to know over the Fourth of July weekend, scoring a decisive Independence Day victory over a surprise attack on open records.

On the evening of July 3, they sprang into action as the state Senate’s Joint Finance Committee introduced language gutting access laws in a last-minute “catch-all” bill known as the Motion 999.

The proposal sought to shroud inter-office communications about bill origins. The eleventh-hour move followed language adopted in May allowing the University of Wisconsin System to conceal the names of finalists for key, high-paying leadership positions that other agencies are required to disclose.

“Wisconsin’s newspapers are to be commended for their vigilant watchdog effort that ultimately led this secretive legislation to be abandoned,” said WNA Executive Director Beth Bennett. “As newspapers record the history of Wisconsin daily, they’re left with little time to tell the stories of their own diligent efforts. Thwarting an attempted coup by the Joint Finance Committee was a feat of strength and newspapers deserve credit for effecting change that benefits the public.”

Newspapers took legislators to task for the move, noting it would have effectively concealed the origin of state laws. They alerted readers via social media and on their websites, working around the clock from the evening of July 3 until public pressure led legislative leaders and Gov. Scott Walker to rescind the proposal less than 24 hours later.

Newspaper editorial boards followed up with July 4 editorials that detailed what was at risk. They admonished legislative leaders for their deceptive attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of citizens during a holiday commemorating independence.