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View from around the state: Another attempt to restrict information

— From the Kenosha News

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. has dropped a proposal to restrict how much board members could say to the media, but the agency can’t be allowed to skate away from this episode without criticism.

The proposal is reminiscent of changes in the Open Records Law that were proposed last summer but scrapped quickly after a deluge of criticism.

So far, these proposals to restrict the public’s access to information have not succeeded, but the frequency of the attempts is disturbing.

The WEDC proposal was scheduled to be voted on at Thursday’s meeting of the WEDC Board, but it was pulled from the agenda on Wednesday, shortly after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported about it online.

The proposal would have barred members of the WEDC Board from answering questions from reporters and limited the kind of information they could release to the public. It would have prohibited board members from releasing any information they received from WEDC staff members except for open records requests.

The proposal seemed to be aimed at the two Democratic members of the board, Rep. Peter Barca of Kenosha and Sen. Julie Lassa of Stevens Point. They have been seeking records related to WEDC’s economic development loans, some of which have proved to be embarrassing to the agency.

In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal before the item was pulled from the agenda, Lassa said, “Frankly, I’d rather see WEDC staff put more effort into preventing fraud and outsourcing than in policing its board members.”

Barca said he was encouraged after the agenda was changed, but he said, “the mere fact that this proposal was on the agenda with so many serious pending concerns causes me to be extremely troubled about the focus and priorities of this agency.”

Any agency that spends the taxpayers’ money needs oversight. An agency like WEDC, which can distribute money to companies in various ways in order to help the state create jobs, is vulnerable to cronyism, so it probably needs more oversight than other agencies. Taxpayers need opposition-party representatives on the agency’s board, and they need for those representatives to be able to speak their minds about the agency’s activities.

It’s good that this proposal was scrapped. It’s sad that proposals like this keeping coming up.

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