Openness and transparency in government got a rare win last week when Gov. Tony Evers vetoed legislation that likely would have kept the public from knowing about allegations of misconduct or sexual harassment by members of the Legislature or their staffs.
The proposed legislation would have created a new legislative service agency call the “Legislative Human Resources Office” — and there is probably some merit to that concept.
But lawmakers tainted that original idea by giving the proposed office a blanket exemption from reporting on any legislative misdeeds and being accountable to the public. The language in the bill said the office “shall at all times observe the confidential nature of records, requests, advice, complaints, reviews, investigations, disciplinary actions, and other information in its possession relating to human resources matters.”
That exemption, of course, covers about everything under the sun. Or in this case, everything legislators don’t want to see come to light and never see the sun.
As Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council noted, “No other state or local body gets to entirely withhold any records related to human resources and there is no clear reason why the Legislature should have been treated any differently.”
Indeed, there are protections under existing law that allow redaction of sensitive information that protects victims and whistleblowers.
There is probably some irony in the fact that the legislation was sailing through the state Senate even as a Dane County judge ruled that the legislature had violated Open Records Law in 2019 by withholding records related to an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment involving former State Rep. Staush Grusynski, a Democrat from Green Bay.
As Gov. Evers put it in his veto message: “The people of Wisconsin have a right to know about misconduct of public officials, including those in the Legislature.”
We agree. That’s important information for the public to have when they go to the polls and make their judgments on whether a legislator is fit to hold office.
It shouldn’t be buried, as this legislation would have been.
This episode also illustrates that there may well be a real need for a legislative human resources office and Evers invited legislators to pursue that with a “clean bill” that would not be used to “hide official misconduct from scrutiny.”
We would encourage the Legislature to pursue that path.