Guest column by Cory Mason
Open Government. Everyone says they are for it. To illustrate the importance of openness and transparency in government, in 1933 Supreme Court Justice Brandeis observed, “Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant.”
This week is Sunshine Week, where we acknowledge the virtue of open government in our democracy. It’s part of a national initiative to open dialogue about the importance of open and transparent government. This session, I am once again introducing a bill (AB 143) that would apply the open meetings law—a foundation of democratic government—to closed door meetings in the Legislature.
On days the Legislature is in session, both parties in both houses of the Legislature split into groups to discuss the day’s calendar. It is in these meetings that most of the real legislative debate occurs. Members suss out their positions, cajole people to a certain view, and reach a general consensus. We employ shuttle diplomacy, devise strategy, and argue passionately for our respective positions. In other words, it’s where the action happens.
In and of itself, this is a useful exercise. It lets members pose questions to each other, discuss possible amendments, and ensures that Legislators are better informed before they create new public policy.
The objectionable part, in my view, is that we close these meetings to public view.
Under Wisconsin’s Open Meeting Law, citizens have the right to watch the deliberations of Government at any level; however, the Legislature exempts itself from this law when we go into our closed door session meetings. The public, the press, Legislative staff, and anyone who is not a state Legislator has to leave the room.
Because I introduced a similar bill as a freshman in the minority last session, I have been asked if I still feel the same way about opening these meetings to the public now that Democrats are in the majority. I continue to believe that transparency is the best policy. If a democracy is to have the trust and confidence of its citizens, the deliberations of its elected representatives must be open to the public.
Now that Democrats are in the majority we have the opportunity to lead in a different and better way—I hope we rise to the challenge. We face the toughest economic climate since the Great Depression, the largest deficit in state history, and the task of sorting out billions of dollars in federal stimulus support. The very least we can do is open all of our debate to public view.
Cory Mason (D—Racine) represents the 62nd Assembly District. He serves on the Joint Committee on Finance & the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources.