The Capital Times’ Jack Craver began yesterday by missing the point:
If a Wisconsin state Legislature controlled by Democrats couldn’t pass a major bill to reduce fossil fuel emissions in 2010, you have to imagine it would be virtually impossible to get legislation combating climate change through the Republican-controlled legislature today.
There are signs, however, that at least some Republicans are keeping an open mind on the issue.
On Wednesday Rep. Jeffrey Mursau, R-Crivitz, the chair of the Assembly Committee on Environment and Forestry, will co-host a forum with the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo, on the effects of climate change in Wisconsin.
The forum, which is closed to the media and public, will include testimony from a number of experts, including two UW-Madison climate scientists — Dan Vimont and Galen McKinley — and other environmental experts, such as Michelle Miller, associate director of the UW Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, and David Liebel, a UW engineering professor who specializes in storm water systems. …
The forum has predictably sparked reactions from conservatives. Media Trackers, a conservative investigative website dedicated largely to attacking liberals, noted that the panel will not include any prominent skeptics of climate change. In a recent blog post, the group’s lead writer, Brian Sikma, poked fun at Mursau’s attempts to explain the forum to conservative Green Bay radio host Jerry Bader, noting that the lawmaker suggested that human activities could be causing global warming but that he also said that, in his “heart,” he did not believe man was contributing to climate change.
“At times the veteran lawmaker sounded like he didn’t want to defend the climate change forum but yet couldn’t offer a clear, concise answer for why he wanted to host the event,” wrote Sikma.
It is this type of controversy that Clark said he is trying to avoid by keeping the forum, which is not an official committee hearing, off-limits to media and the public.
“Unfortunately some of these extreme tea party groups are really threatening a lot of legislators who might even have an interest in coming to learn about this issue,” he said. “This is a briefing for legislators. We want to dial down the expectations or the grandstanding as much as possible.”
He confirmed that all panel participants likely adhere to the scientific consensus regarding climate change.
The point was not that Mursau and Red Fred are wrong about climate change, though they are. The point is that, under the state Open Meetings Law, this will be an illegal meeting, and Craver completely ignored that fact.
The reason probably is because Craver was looking to take shots at Media Trackers. which had reported:
Mursau told Media Trackers late Friday that the public would be banned from the event, as would members of the press. According to the state Representative, “The forum is open only to legislators and legislative staff.”
According to an e-mail sent by an industry executive in late November, some participants in the forum were expecting a possible media presence and thought that some members of the public might show up. “It is likely that some media will attend,” wrote the executive with the Wisconsin Paper Council.
Last Thursday, Mursau was asked by regional talk radio show host Jerry Bader to explain why he was hosting the event. Contradicting himself at points in the interview, Mursau managed to disjointedly explain he simply wants to learn more about the impact climate change could have on Wisconsin.
He has also said he does not foresee legislative policy ideas emerging from the event. But some previous attempts by Wisconsin policymakers to herald climate change concerns have been accompanied by regulatory frameworks and proposals that generated intense debate.
Six of the ten speakers scheduled for the forum are University of Wisconsin academics or professionals. They are slated to speak on topics ranging from water resources to energy production and consumption.
Starting the event is Dan Vimont, a climate scientist at UW Madison who co-chairs the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts. The WICCI declared in a 2011 report, “Unless we modify planning, design and management of infrastructure, the risk of economic and environmental damage will increase.”
The WICCI report also suggested that flooding and sewage overflows, like the sewage overflows in Milwaukee, are the result of climate change. ”[I]f instances of heavy rainfall increase in frequency and magnitude, as climate models project, we will see an increase in these public health risks resulting from sewer overflows,” the report states.
Paul Meier, a scientist with the UW’s Wisconsin Energy Institute, will be addressing the impact of climate change on energy production. Meier’s work has focused on touting the benefits of green energy and renewable energy as part of the country’s energy portfolio. “Using a multi-player game approach, I am working to establish a national energy modeling network, wherein researchers and decision-makers can strategize for an affordable transition to clean energy,” his UW biography reads.
To explain how climate change will impact agriculture, Mursau and Clark have invited Michelle Miller of the UW Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems to speak. Miller at one time worked for Earth Share, a liberal group that facilitates fundraising efforts for local environmental groups. On their website they explain:
“The warming temperatures caused by GHGs are responsible for rising sea levels (from melting glaciers and ice shelves), melting permafrost, changes in the distribution of plants and animals, and the lengthening of seasons. Scientists are also increasingly confident in linking climate change to the catastrophic storms, droughts and hurricanes we’ve experienced in the last few years.
Campaign finance records show that Miller, who also worked for Environmental Defense, has contributed exclusively to Democratic candidates.
Absent from the list of speakers is University of Wisconsin Milwaukee professor and climate scientist Anastasios Tsonis. Tsonis has been critical of global warming theorists who refuse to consider the impacts of “natural variability” on climate.
In other words, Media Trackers did the work Craver didn’t — reporting that the Mursau and Red Fred Show would include only anti-science “experts” who want to blow up our lives to increase their own power.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the secretive meeting, Media Trackers then reported:
Just days after digging in and declaring that the public and media would not be allowed to attend a climate change forum hosted at the state Capitol, state Rep. Jeff Mursau has relented. Mursau, a Republican and chairman of the Assembly’s Environment and Forestry Committee, and Democrat state Rep. Fred Clark, who also sits on the committee, issued a joint statement late Tuesday afternoon welcoming anyone to attend their event.
“If people want to come, we can accommodate them,” Mursau said in the written statement. Clark clarified that “Entry to the forum will be open to all legislators, legislative staff, the general public and media.” …
Although not a formal committee meeting, if Mursau and Clark had insisted on keeping the forum off-limits to the public and a majority of their fellow committee members attended, they were potentially at risk of violating the state’s open meetings law.
Craver reports today:
After an outcry from critics across the political spectrum over news that an environmental forum for legislators would be closed to the public, the hosts of the event announced that the meeting would be open to the media and others after all.
The forum, to be held Wednesday morning by state Reps. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo, and Jeffrey Mursau, R-Crivitz, will feature a number of environmental experts explaining the effects of climate change in Wisconsin. Clark told The Capital Times on Monday that the meeting was being held privately to avoid the distraction he said could be caused by right-wing activists who deny climate change and might promote political grandstanding.
“It’s regrettable and unfortunate that these legislators feel it is necessary to conduct this meeting behind closed doors,” Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council said on Tuesday, before Clark and Mursau changed their plans. “This is a topic of considerable public interest, unlike much of what the Legislature does in the open.” …
The negative reaction prompted Clark and Mursau to reconsider their decision to keep the meeting private. That decision, after all, had been framed as a way to reduce the controversy, but it had instead created more of it.
“It was not our intent to create a controversy,” said Clark on Tuesday afternoon. “Clearly there are people who are interested in the subject of this forum.”
Clark also said that the original plans to close the meeting were not cancelled because they were illegal.
“We looked at that issue and we are comfortable that it wouldn’t be a violation of the Open Meetings Law,” he said, referencing the law that requires most meetings of legislative bodies to be open to the public.
But the meeting, which all members of the Legislature were invited to attend, could likely be deemed illegal only if those in attendance constituted a quorum of a legislative committee. If it’s just Clark, Mursau and their staffers talking with environmental experts, then there’s no legal obligation to alert the public.
On Tuesday afternoon, Clark said he was just about to put out a public notice on the meeting, which is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Wednesday. State law requires the public notice of official meetings at least 24 hours in advance, but Clark again explained that the forum would not constitute such a meeting.
“We don’t expect a quorum of any committee to be present,” he said.
But even if there is one, he said that the law clearly allows exceptions for legislators from the same body to be in the same place at the same time without it constituting an illegal meeting. The forum, he described, will be an informal information session, not a legislative hearing.
“It is our intent to create a conference on the subject of climate change. We don’t feel we are violating the letter or the spirit of the open meetings laws,” he said.
Lueders also said that meetings that cannot result in a “legislative outcome” because not enough legislators are present are not covered by the open meetings law.
A representative from the state attorney general’s office said there had been no complaints received in response to the meeting.
If that last statement is true, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen isn’t doing his job either. Lueders’ comment is difficult for me to understand since, as president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, he should be opposed to even violations in spirit of the Open Meetings and Open Records laws. (Which, by the way, should be part of the state Constitution.) To assert that a meeting “cannot result in a ‘legislative outcome’” is impossible to say because you don’t know in advance what will occur. It’s entirely possible that Mursau could create the framework of a pernicious “climate change” deal based on what he hears (from only one side) at the meeting; it would have to go through the legislative process, but in the witch’s brew that is the legislative process, things often happen without the appropriate public scrutiny.
Republicans (and clearly Mursau is one) seem less enthusiastic than Democrats (except for Red Fred) about openness in government. This is the wrong attitude, and this is proof of that. You’d think that, having exposed judges, district attorneys and other government officials (plus supposedly impartial members of the news media) as supporting the overthrow of Gov. Scott Walker during Recallarama, thanks to the Open Records Law and the requirement that ballot petitions are in fact public records, Republicans would be the biggest supporters of openness in government.
The Open Meetings and Open Records laws contain the same presumption: Without specific exceptions, the presumption is that government meetings are open to the public, and government records are open to the public. Politicians who try to weasel out of those laws deserve to be removed from office.