Thursday, February 28, 2008

Shhh, it's a secret II

The state department of revenue, the local version of the IRS, will keep its own counsel of what constitutes the public good. Attorney General JB Van Hollen sided with the tax collectors and agreed it was in the public interest not to release the number of people contacted regarding enforcement of the tobacco tax.

The AP had requested a review of the department's refusal to release the information, arguing that it had to disclose how many people it had contacted seeking payment of sales taxes owed on purchases of cigarettes over the Internet.

The AP was only asking for numbers of people contacted, not their names or other identifying information.

But the request was rejected on the grounds that even releasing the total numbers would harm the public good by revealing tactics related to how the agency conducts audits. The Revenue Department argued in a Dec. 20 letter to the AP that disclosure of those numbers would encourage more people not to comply with the law "in areas where they understood their chances of being investigated were particularly low."

Revenue Secretary Roger Ervin told the AP in December that releasing that number would "neuter our ability to enforce the law."

The department's reason for withholding the information is "spectacularly lame," said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

"They're making it clear as day that the reason they don't want to give up the number is it's such a small number it would encourage noncompliance," he said. "Just because the Department of Revenue is embarrassed that it's doing so little is not reason to hide that fact from the public."
Meanwhile, the Waukesha Freeman expresses in an editorial concern over the local secrecy trend (a trend I first noted here).
Whether it involves public meetings scheduled at inconvenient times, the bungling of an agenda, the withholding of information or plain old secret meetings, it seems some local officials aren’t as interested as they should be in keeping the workings of local government out in the open.

Waukesha is refusing to release an appraisal for land in the town of Waukesha it wants to use for two wells that would help with the city’s radium problem. The Waukesha Common Council met in closed session to discuss the appraisal, but the city won’t release it for citizens to see.

Last weekend, the Delafield Common Council, aka the Breakfast Club, met to close a tax incremental financing (TIF) district at 8:30 a.m. Saturday. The time was selected for the convenience of the council members and the public’s ability to attend and participate was given a back seat.

This week we’ve seen some other troubling open meeting activities.

First, Waukesha Mayor Larry Nelson had to apologize for leaving an item off the agenda that would have allowed the council to convene in open session after interviewing a candidate for the director of public works job in closed session. The announcement of the director’s hiring had to be delayed until the next day. It seems the mayor just made a mistake, but clearly the right of the public to have open access to their government was not a priority.

Also, the building committee for the Waukesha Public Library is meeting in closed session today to meet with architects regarding a $1.5 million expansion project.

All this in just a week. Not good.