September 5, 2013 by Nicole Desautels and Rebecca Kemble
The Wisconsin State Senate Committee for Workforce Development, Forestry, Mining and Revenue passed SB 278 on a party line vote this morning. The bill allows Gogebic Taconite to close off 3,500 acres of Managed Forest Land for public access immediately upon enactment of the law without paying the withdrawal fees they would otherwise have to pay under current law.
During the executive session Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) called the bill and the process by which it is being fast tracked through the legislature with no input from citizens from Northern Wisconsin or other sporting and recreation groups that use the land “contemptuous.” Addressing his fellow senators, Jauch said, “It matters what the people think. It isn’t our government, it’s theirs. Citizens shouldn’t feel like they’re getting stiffed by their own legislature.”
In response, Sen. Alberta Darling said, “I disagree that this shows contempt for the public and that this is a piece of slop. I don’t appreciate the language that’s being directed at those of us supporting this legislation not thinking that government is for the public.”
But the committee chair and the Capitol Police showed contempt for the public during the proceedings this morning. Access to land wasn’t the only thing blocked: Members of the public were temporarily prevented from entering the meeting room by Capitol Police officers, and a journalist was barred from filming inside the session by Senate staff.
Despite a state statute that says that during open sessions of legislative meetings “the body shall make a reasonable effort to accommodate any person desiring to record, film or photograph the meeting,” videographer Nicole Desautels was ordered to turn off her video camera at the beginning of the session.
“I’ve been documenting events in the Capitol for 2 1/2 years, mostly for my youtube channel, LadyForward, and for the Wisconsin Citizens Media Co-op. The Progressive magazine website picks up my work on occasion as well,” says Desautels.
She adds, “Many of the senators and representatives know me or are at least familiar with my face. The clerks know who I am, the police know me. They all know that when I film I do so quietly. If I had continued to film in that meeting I would have been arrested. I find it disconcerting that Sen. Tiffany doesn’t have to follow statutes. He can make up any arbitrary rule he wants and there will be no repercussions.”
Here’s her video statement about what happened:
Katherine Bauer traveled to Madison from Menasha yesterday to give testimony at the public hearing. At the end of the hearing she asked committee chair Sen. Tom Tiffany whether the executive session would be open or closed. He assured her that it would be an open session multiple times.
Bauer arrived at the meeting room this morning to find two Capitol Police officers blocking the door. When she tried to enter she was told by Officer Steingraeber that it was a closed meeting. She insisted that Sen. Tiffany told her it was open, and finally a Senate staffer came out of the room to confirm the fact and they were allowed to enter. They were the only members of the public in the room.
Here’s Kathy’s statement:
After the hearing Officer Steingraeber said he was told by his superiors in the morning police briefing that the meeting was closed. He and another officer were ordered to stand guard at the door and not allow members of the public to enter, in apparent violation of Wis. Stat. 19.31 that states, “The denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied.”
A legislative staffer commented, “it sounds like they made a mistake.”
Desautels and Bauer both filed incident reports with the Capitol Police.
UPDATE September 23, 2013: Here is a video from the Executive Session showing some of the actions that legislators and the Capitol Police did not want the public to see. While members of the public were temporarily blocked from entering the room, Gogebic Taconite lobbyist Bob Seitz was not only allowed entry, but free rein to interact with AP reporter Todd Richmond and Sen. Grothman during the session before the vote: