A Constant Struggle Between Transparency and Proper Disclosure

Milwaukee County Board Censures Supervisor Lynn De Bruin

government transparencyThe Milwaukee County Board recently voted to censure Supervisor Lynne De Bruin for releasing sensitive information to the media from a "closed door session".

According to several accounts, behavioral health administrator John Chianelli told the County Board that co-ed facility may increase the chances of sexual misconduct among patients, but it was a trade-off since it reduced the overall violence that's characteristic of predominantly male facilities.  After an open-records request was filed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, De Bruin released a four-page letter critical of Mr. Chianelli divulging some of the meeting's details.

So frustrated was Lee Holloway that he sponsored a measure to censure De Bruin, a type of reprimand that hasn't been issued to a County Supervisor in decades.  The censure was decided by a 13-6 vote with all county supervisors present.  The question now is, was De Bruin wrong?

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel doesn't think so.  They believe that the County Board violated an "Open Meeting Law" by holding a closed-door session on a "substantive issue regarding public health policy". Managing Editor George Stanley told El Conquistador that they were still exploring the best route to take with their attorney, and that they may ask the state authorities to get involved.  More on this as it evolves.

An Exchange of Views Shows a Philosophical Struggle with Full Public Disclosure

The censure raises a few important questions.  Should some sessions rightfully be hidden from the public?  And if so, does De Bruin's exposure of confidential information violate some sort of ethical code or standard?

When questioned by El Conquistador, County Supervisor Chris Larson had this to say about the closed-door session:

"the closed session meetings we had did little to assure me that comprehensive and corrective action were being taken despite pressing questions by me and fellow supervisors. Now that the documents are public, it's clear to all what was clear to us then: the closed session meetings were focused more on trying to avoid lawsuits by hiding information than on trying to correct the actual action that would instigate a lawsuit"

According to Larson, the county's meeting didn't exactly occur on noble grounds.  And he seems to suggest that the lack of proper action validated the release of De Bruin's letter.

 

Although County Supervisor Mark Borkowski comes to the same conclusion, he took a different route to get there.  Borkowski believes that closed door sessions are necessary for instances like say labor negotiations, but he drew the line in De Bruin's case because it pertained to the "human condition" that involved life and death.  Borkowski was likely referring to the 22 year old pregnant woman who was raped at a county facility last summer.

Rice, however, voted to censure De Bruin because her disclosure of confidential information could have created harm and liability for Milwaukee County.  He said,

"Those attending closed sessions agree to keep the information in confidence under the state statutory exception to the Open meetings Law. In the case of this meeting, the closed session was held to consult with legal counsel about potential litigation."

Notice that Rice mentions the "state statutory exception to the Open meetings Law."  De Bruin stated she released the letter because the media had filed an open-records request.  Rice, however, seems to suggest there is a statutory exception that permits De Bruin to deny the open-records request, but she just chose not to.  In other words, De Bruin went out of her way to release information even though she was exempted by state law.

Each County Supervisor had a unique take on the issue, but the most interesting response came from Supervisor Joe Sanfelippo.  While Larson focused on the meeting's illegitimacy, Borkowski focused on the human condition, and Rice stressed law and procedure; Sanfelippo pointed to the timing of the release.  According to Sanfelippo, allegations of sexual assault are very serious, but they still "require a thorough investigation conducted in an appropriate manner".  Furthermore, Sanfelippo said

"The proper time for releasing information is at the conclusion of the investigation after all the facts have been discovered. Any release of information prior to that point only fuels speculation and provides fodder for those interested in advancing an agenda rather than investigating and fixing a problem."

Sanfelippo is right on one important point.  Public disclosure is best served after an investigation.  Sanfelippo's point does not quarrel with the release of information per say, but with the timing of the release.   

 

Conclusion

It was Thomas Jefferson that said the free press is a key to a functioning democracy.  They keep the government informed about what the people are thinking, and they keep the people informed about what the government is doing.  It is a delicate symbiotic balance between what the people deserve to know and what the government is obligated to withhold. 

Depending on the situation, the media can either be the public's best friend, or they can be the public's enemy.  Does anyone recall when Geraldo Rivera broadcasted the covert location of American troops during the war in Iraq? 

But the De Bruin controversy isn't quite the same.  Although I agree with Sanfelippo that the premature release of information can spark political battles, I would rather error on the side of knowing what my government is doing than being kept in the dark.  And I also agree that it is better to complete an investigation before information is released, but we need to weigh the costs against the benefits.  Unless it can be proved that De Bruin's letter harmed the county or legitimately stymied an investigation, De Bruin should not have been censured.

 


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