Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.
One of the great things about federalism is that each state can experiment with various policy choices allowing the best and most successful ideas to be copied by other states. The state of Michigan has an excellent government transparency policy that Wisconsin should adopt forthwith.
Having just finished a lengthy public debate regarding a school referendum in the West Bend School District, one of the infuriating aspects of the debate was the incomplete, misconstrued, or missing information. The district’s officials distributed a lot of information, carefully curated and parsed, specific to the referendum, but finding general information about the district remains difficult.
Since the School Board and district were asking for gobs of additional money to spend, many voters began asking reasonable questions about the district’s finances. After all, how can a voter reasonably vote to give a government more money to spend unless they are confident that the government officials are being a good stewards of the money they already have?
For example, how much does the district spend on employee benefits? How much do they spend on maintenance for facilities? How much is spent on outof- state travel? What is actually in the teachers’ contract negotiated with the union? What is the compensation plan for teachers, staff, and administrators? How much debt is the district carrying and how are they paying it off ?
The answers to these questions and many more are available for the asking, but it takes tracking down an administrator, filing an open records request, or both. Wisconsin law requires that governments give the public information when they ask for it, but it does not require that the government make it easy. Especially with the dearth of local news outlets in many communities, this information rarely gets out.
This lack of transparency is not unique to the West Bend School District. The vast majority of Wisconsin’s local governments do a terrible job of making information readily available to the public despite the ease of modern technology that should make it easy to do so. There is nothing preventing local governments from being more transparent. It is a policy choice of each elected government body.
There are exceptions. The city of West Bend, for example, does a terrific job by posting their entire detailed budget online. They also post a detailed spending report, sorted by department, amount, and vendor, that shows everything from a $157,883.83 purchase of road salt to a $35.07 purchase for hand soap. The information is there for anybody to parse, analyze, and form judgments.
This is where Michigan comes in. For reasons not germane to this column, I recently followed the debate for a school bonding proposal (what Wisconsinites would call a school referendum) in Ludington, Mich. They were voting on whether or not to borrow and spend $101 million in a district with a $21 million annual budget. Much of the debate would have been very familiar to Wisconsinites who have been considering referendums, but in researching the district, one can go to the Ludington Area Schools’ website and find a wealth of information.
Right on their website, the school district publishes the complete operating budget, various charts showing how money is spent, each of the full collective bargaining agreements, the health care benefits plan, fiscal audits, compensation packages for employees earning over $100,000, association dues paid by the district, employee reimbursements, amounts spent on lobbying, their deficit reduction plan, the credit card policy, expenses for out-of-state travel for administrators, and other required notices. All of this information is current, detailed, and gives the public a clear view of how the district is managed.
Of course, Ludington is not unique. One can find this information on the website of any school district in Michigan because it is required by state law. Specifically, Section 18 (2) of the Public Act 94 of 1979 requires that school districts publish this information for the public to see.
Wisconsin should follow Michigan’s lead and require that local units of government publish this kind of relevant information on their websites. All of this information already exists in a digital format that could easily be distributed to the public for virtually no cost and minimal effort. This is the kind of information that voters need to be able to make rational, informed decisions about the functioning of their local governments. Come to think of it, state lawmakers should include state government in making this kind of information readily available.
An informed citizenry is required for true self-governance and transparency in government is an issue that transcends all political affiliations. State lawmakers from both political parties should support making sure that every citizen has access to as much information as possible about their governments.