On Veterans Day, I thanked a good friend of mine — a military veteran whose son is serving now —for his service. His response will stay with me forever: “My wish is that instead of thanking veterans, citizens make our republic worthy of the veterans’ sacrifice.”
I wish to thank all the veterans who have served and are serving in the protection and the pursuit of this noble American experiment in democracy. But I also I want to dedicate myself to the same battle right here in my community. And I hope you’ll join me.
By now, you’ve likely heard about the controversy that erupted last week about stifling soon-to-be-released results of the SWIGG (Southwestern Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology) water quality study. Some members of the Lafayette County Board tried to quickly pass a resolution to limit how the press reports on the study, how supervisors and employees talk about the study and how the public learns about the results.
Resolution 55-19 included assertions of a “county board leak of confidential information” and said that “Southwest Wisconsin had been falsely slandered by the press.” The resolution proposed that future test results would be released only to the county chairs of Iowa, Grant and Lafayette. Those counties are partnering for the study with researchers from UW Extension, the U.S. Geological Survey and the USDA. A press release on the study would be written by the chairs, rather than the researchers, and members of the press that didn’t print the release in its entirety would “be prosecuted.” County supervisors “caught” speaking to the press without “express authority” would be “censured and publicly admonished.”
This proposed gag order on the discussion of publicly funded research (previously published on state and county websites), violates both First Amendment personal rights and freedom of the press, and sends a chilling message to county supervisors, employees and state researchers about open discourse regarding well quality. Of course, these opinions are mine alone, and in no way represent the opinion of the full county board or of the county's Land Conservation Committee.
But Resolution 55-19 concerned a lot of people, and hours after the emergency committee meeting to vote on it was posted, articles had appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, the Wisconsin State Farmer and the front page of the Saturday Wisconsin State Journal. The story was featured on Wisconsin Public Radio and in the New York Times and Washington Post.
"All I can say is: Wow," UW-Madison journalism instructor Kathleen Bartzen Culver said in an email to The Associated Press. "I am astonished that a local government would find it appropriate, much less legal, to threaten a news organization with prosecution for doing what they are constitutionally protected in doing — representing the public interest by seeking, analyzing and reporting information.”
“If there were fecal matter in my water, I, for one, would want to know! I would want a reporter to write about it and I would want someone to help get it out of there!” tweeted Jessie Opoien, Cap Times opinion editor. “Um, yeah.” I tweeted back.
But, of course, nothing is ever that simple. In August, SWIGG made the regional news with findings that 32 of 35 previously contaminated wells were retested and found to have fecal matter in them — 91% of the bad wells were still contaminated, with human and livestock manure. Some news outlets reported that 91% of tested wells in southwestern Wisconsin contained fecal matter, which made the results sound far worse than they were. In reality, 42% of tested wells in the fall, and 27% of tested wells in the spring were found to be too high in nitrates or bacteria to drink.
Frustration about sloppy reporting is justified, and there are many ways to respond, including creating a more open rather than a more adversarial relationship with the press. But only an assumption that few people are paying attention would embolden local leaders to attempt to pass a resolution so patently undemocratic.
The Land Conservation Committee ultimately approved a modified version of the resolution, with the press restrictions removed. But the resolution would still punish board members who speak publicly without government approval. The full County Board will vote on the resolution Tuesday night.
Now more than ever, we need a civil and creative discussion about the quality of our groundwater and how to provide clean drinking water to all citizens.
Some have said that democracy dies in darkness. I think that democracy, like every living thing, requires both light and cultivation to stay alive. Even the Founders, as they hammered together the framework of our republic, assumed that constant citizen engagement was required for the premise to work. In a bold article, brilliant in its uniqueness among world constitutions, the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights gave American citizens the rights to assemble together and practice free speech, as well as to watch and question the practice of government. The First Amendment also forbade government to impinge upon the rights of a free and independent press, because the press both educates citizens and holds government accountable by alerting them to threats like this resolution.
With the Constitution as our guide, it’s our job as citizens to protect and pursue democracy right here in Lafayette County. Buy a weekly newspaper subscription, and buy ads to help keep the paper printed. Follow what your local elected officials are doing, and make phone calls to let them know you are paying attention. RUN for local office (you can file papers for County Board starting on Dec. 1. Get them at your county clerk’s office.). Above all, talk to your neighbors about the news and about politics — not political parties — and about what democracy and good government means to you.
Kriss Marion is the District 8 supervisor for the Lafayette County Board. The opinions expressed above are her own, and do not represent the county board or any committee.
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