Openness is best

Published 11:15 am Friday, April 1, 2011

Daily Herald editorial

Wisconsin Republicans’ push to effectively end collective bargaining for public employees in that state hit a snag this week when a judge issued a restraining order saying that effort to implement the law had to stop — not because of the law’s controversial content but because of the manner in which it became a law. The court made the right decision.

Almost as notable as the content of the Wisconsin law was the divisive debate that preceded it. Senate Democrats fled the state to block a vote, and protesters flocked to the Capitol to support collective bargaining. In the end, Republican lawmakers used what many consider a procedural trick to get the bill approved, and that is the basis for the court challenge: Opponents contend that the Senate failed to provide proper notice of its intent to meet and vote, violating the state’s open meetings law.

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Public officials often prefer to operate out of the public eye — even though they are spending tax dollars and creating rules that affect the lives of residents. It was to preserve the public’s right to know what its government is doing that open meetings laws like Wisconsin’s — and Minnesota’s, for that matter — were created. One of the things such laws are designed to prevent is surprise votes by public bodies — in other words, to prevent the sort of action that took place in Madison, Wis.

Openness in government, while unpopular among many in government, is the basis of America’s democratic system. It is often inconvenient for public officials — including senators — to live by those rules. But it is always better for democracy when transparency rules. Judge Maryann Sumi made the right decision this week in slowing work on a law whose creation was not fully transparent.