UW-Madison Bascom Hall (copy)

There's a plaque on the wall in the entry way to The Capital Times newsroom that the paper received from the Associated Press' Managing Editors back in 1983 for its open records fight with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The paper's battle on behalf of openness in public institutions was recognized by the national organization as the number one example that year in holding taxpayer-paid officials' feet to the fire.

It happened to be my first year as editor of the paper, but the fight for the records had been going on for five years as the university stubbornly refused to open files we believed the public had a right to see. The UW played every legal trick in the book to refuse our requests, eventually ringing up lawyers' fees in the tens of thousands.

All we were after were files the UW required of faculty members explaining their potential conflicts of interest. Our curiosity had been sparked when it was revealed that a UW engineering professor, who had testified in court on behalf of a mining company accused of polluting Lake Superior, just happened to be a paid consultant to the firm.

Was this a common practice, we wondered, and we set out to do a story about faculty members' paid outside interests. We had no idea what a hornet's nest we had poked. In the end, the UW lost and not only was ordered to turn over the records, but was forced to pay our attorneys' fees.

Thirty-six years later, I was reminded of that battle when once again the university stubbornly fought an open records request, rightfully lost it and now, unless it can stage a successful appeal, is on the hook to pay the requester's lawyers $40,000.

This time the issue was over records maintained by the UW-Madison's School of Medicine and Public Health that show how a committee in the school has been awarding millions of dollars of grants from an endowment fund aimed at funding health improvement projects around the state.

The open records request was brought by Kevin Wymore, a former health policy analyst for the state's Division of Public Health. Madison lawyer Christa Westerberg, co-vice president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, handled the case.

The endowment fund in question had been created when Blue Cross Blue Shield United dissolved its nonprofit status and turned some of its proceeds over to the UW Medical School.

Tom Hefty, who was the Blues' CEO at the time, has long criticized the way the UW was handling the endowment. His concerns piqued Wymore's interest. He wondered how decisions on who gets grants were determined. It seemed that some of the grants were made to projects with which some of the committee's members had connections. He wanted to see how they scored grants and the questions and comments they had about them.

In other words, to him it was just a matter of transparency.

UW officials are upset with the decision, insisting that it will have a "chilling effect" on the committee's work and members' comments as they evaluate grant requests. So an appeal is not out of the question.

But, once again, the university has shot itself in the foot by opting for secrecy over transparency. The people have every right to know what public officials are doing with the money that has been placed in their care and how they decide to spend it.

Secrecy always breeds mistrust, and like back there in 1983, the university needs to build all the trust it can.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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