It would be funny that anyone on the Lafayette County Board thought they could prevent local elected officials and journalists from doing their jobs, if it weren’t so terribly disheartening.
The good news is that reports indicate that the board has dropped plans to vote on a resolution that included severe restrictions on the information available to the public about local water quality studies, along with a threat to “prosecute” members of the media who reported on those studies without publishing a board-approved news release verbatim. The bad news is that this happened only after a flurry of media coverage of said resolution, along with a whole lot of justifiable outrage from open government and free press advocates.
I found about the resolution Friday afternoon, thanks to Lafayette County Board member Kriss Marion. She was understandably outraged to find it on agendas for both the board and its land conservation committee, on which she serves, and sought to notify as many people as she could before the scheduled Tuesday vote.
The message from Marion came just a few hours after I’d spoken at length with Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway about her proposed city budget. Both conversations left me thinking about the importance of local government — and, even more, about the importance of scrutinizing local government.
Here’s the short version of what happened in Lafayette County:
The Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology study — a joint effort involving the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, the U.S. Agricultural Research Service, the UW Extension and others — is measuring contamination in private wells in Lafayette, Iowa and Grant counties. The group released a study in August that found that 91% of private wells in those three counties that had previously been found to be contaminated still contained fecal matter.
The study was a follow-up to an earlier one that found that 42% of randomly selected wells in Lafayette, Iowa and Grant counties were contaminated. The 91% figure alarmed people, and some local officials were upset with the way it was reported.
Fast forward to this resolution, which accused county board members of “leaking” publicly available information and accused media outlets of “falsely slandering” southwestern Wisconsin.
The resolution (of which, thus far, no one has claimed authorship) would have allowed county board chairs to withhold future test results from board members, reporters and the public. It would have barred county board members from speaking to the press about water study results. And it threatened prosecution for any member of the media who chose not to publish the county’s press releases in their entirety.
It’s hard to know where to start on the resolution’s legal problems, but apparently the First Amendment is more of a suggestion for some members of the Lafayette County Board. Withholding public documents from the public also tends to not go over well with judges, and then there’s a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said “no court of last resort in this country has ever held, or even suggested, that prosecutions for libel on government have any place in the American system of jurisprudence.”
In any case, you don’t need a law degree to know that none of this would hold up in court. But the fact that it ever made it to the county board agenda is alarming — or, to borrow a word from Marion, befuddling.
We can’t know what would have happened if Marion hadn’t alerted the public and if statewide media outlets hadn’t reported on it. But we do know that after Marion did alert the public and statewide media outlets did report on it, local officials started to backtrack.
According to a University of North Carolina study, Wisconsin has 21 counties with just one newspaper. Lafayette County has two (the weekly Republican-Journal and the weekly Pecatonica Valley Leader), in a state that has seen a 28% percent decrease in the number of newspapers published since 2004.
Dane County, in comparison, has a relative embarrassment of media riches. We have 16 newspapers, several local radio and TV stations, and because it’s the center of state government, the operations of several statewide outlets are based in Madison.
When our local government wants to do something controversial — like, say, implement a $40 vehicle registration fee — we hear a lot about it, and that’s thanks to the local reporters who spend many a weeknight evening camped out in the City-County Building learning what our local officials are doing so the rest of us can be informed.
Local government coverage matters. A Columbia Journalism Review study found that counties with “news deserts” have higher poverty rates and lower median household incomes than the national average. Logic and evidence would also suggest that the stakes are higher in these counties when local officials think they can get away with subverting democracy.
Like Lafayette County, for example. I don’t know about you, but if my water were contaminated with fecal matter, I’d want to know about it. I’d want my elected officials to speak freely about it, and I’d want media coverage until something was done to fix it. But, it would seem, the same is not true for the author of this resolution.
They didn’t get away with it this time.
That’s thanks to a local elected official who’s not afraid to speak out when she sees something wrong, and thanks to a watchful news media that shed a light on this ham-handed attempt at governing.
And it should be a reminder to all of us that local government deserves a far greater share of our resources and attention than we give it.
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to email@example.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.
This column has been corrected to note that Lafayette County has two weekly newspapers, not one.