Editorial Roundup: Wisconsin

Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. February 26, 2024.

Editorial: Birkie organizers pulled off the near-impossible

There was nothing like this year’s Birkebeiner over the course of its 50 years. The snow that usually blankets Wisconsin took the year off.

With less than 16 inches of snow in Sawyer County for the entire season, the traditional race just wasn’t possible. So organizers had to play the role of Mother Nature, stockpiling 30,000 cubic yards of man-made snow into a 10-kilometer loop.

Calling the task herculean would be selling it short. This was a last-ditch effort to avoid cancellation, and pulling it off proved the dedication of those involved. This was a race that, frankly, probably shouldn’t have been possible.

There’s always an element of uncertainty with the Birkie. That’s simply the nature of things when you’re talking about events outdoors in Wisconsin in February. You have to be prepared for weather ranging from sunny and warm, perhaps in the mid-30s, to blizzard conditions. No one foresaw this year’s bizarrely warm conditions, though.

How unusual is this? Eau Claire is further south than the Birkie, but can fairly illustrate how odd this year has been. So far, there have been seven daily record high temperatures in 2024. That’s a little more than 12% of the days so far. We haven’t even come close to any record lows.

Organizers kept their fingers crossed as long as they could. They announced changes for the event, which were considerable, on Feb. 13. The American Birkebeiner went from a 50K race to 30K. The Kortelopet saw almost a third of its traditional 29K distance sliced off and the Prince Haakon saw a similar change.

The one race that remained the same was the Elite Skate race. It stayed at 50K, and officials put a clever spin on the change to a lapped course. While it’s a big change, they said, the approach would “enhance the spectator experience by allowing them to see athletes multiple times throughout the race. It also adds an element of strategy and excitement for competitors as they navigate the course.”

That’s not too bad for people who aren’t trained political spinmeisters.

There was good reason to push hard to have the event, even if it was substantially altered from what it usually is. The costs are usually sunk by the time the skis hit the course. The bibs and medals have to be ordered early. So do the contracts for tents and more mundane things like porta-potties. You can’t wait to the last minute on any of those things, and they’re the bulk of the costs for events like these.

Unfortunately, this round is likely a preview of what the Birkie will face in years to come. While this is, we hope, a more extreme example there’s no real question that the climate is getting warmer. That will, over time, mean less snow. Today’s contingency plans may eventually have to simply become plans.

We’re not there yet, though, and next year will most likely be much more like Birkies of the past. It’s not unprecedented to see back-to-back winters that are unusually mild, but it is less probable than some swing back to what we’ve seen over the past 20 years or so.

With that in mind, we hope organizers take a well-earned break before getting deep into the work of the 2025 Birkie. It’s set for Feb. 19-22, and we hope the snow those days doesn’t need a helping hand from machines.


Wisconsin State Journal. February 25, 2024.

Editorial: Veto bad bill discouraging public requests for body-cam footage

Taxpayers across Wisconsin have invested millions of dollars to equip police officers with body-worn cameras.

All of that money will be wasted — and the goals of greater transparency and accountability dashed — if the public can’t see what the cameras record.

Gov. Tony Evers should veto Senate Bill 789, which would allow law enforcement agencies to charge exorbitant fees for the release of body-cam footage. Under a late amendment to the bill, police could even demand that frequent requesters disclose if they are seeking police video for “financial gain,” which could trigger a $10,000 fine.

The proposal includes vague language and hasn’t been properly vetted. Rushing it into law would be irresponsible and undermine public trust.

SB 789 would let police charge regular requesters of public information for the time and expense police say they incur if they deem it necessary to blur details from video before it is released. For example, police might have legitimate reasons for hiding the face of a confidential informant or blocking footage of security procedures at a prison.

But what if their real motivation is to conceal misconduct?

That’s why Wisconsin’s open records law has long presumed that government-recorded video and audio are public and should be released as soon as reasonably possible, with narrow exceptions for redactions and denials.

Police video has helped the public get to the bottom of controversial arrests. For example, it led to the suspension and retraining of Milwaukee cops who harassed and zapped with a stun gun former Milwaukee Bucks basketball player Sterling Brown in 2018. Police video also exonerated UW-Madison officers in 2016 from claims by a professor that multiple police “ambushed” a student in her classroom to question him about graffiti.

Rather than forcing the public to rely on conflicting accounts and faulty memories, body-worn cameras let people see and hear for themselves what really happened.

Sen. Jesse James, R-Altoona, and Rep. John Spiros, R-Marshfield, both of whom have worked as police officers, are key sponsors of SB 789. James worries in his written testimony touting the bill that “a fair number of open records requests” for police records can be “particularly tedious and time consuming” to process.

Well, too bad. Wisconsin’s open records law specifically makes it the job of public officials to make public records available to citizens. If police agencies need to assign someone to spend some or all of their time reviewing and releasing footage, that’s part of that agency’s duties. And those records belong to the public, not the police, who are public employees.

The Badger State Sheriffs’ Association submitted written testimony that an unnamed sheriff’s department has been “inundated” with requests for video from individuals who post the footage on YouTube to try to make money. The department supposedly got six requests in one night.

Even if that’s true and isn’t rare, discouraging if not blocking access to public records with the threat of pricey fees and a $10,000 fine isn’t the solution. Citizens have a right to see how police do their work. So do local news outlets, as they cover crime and punishment on the public’s behalf.

If Evers signs this bill, news outlets that make more than 10 requests for police video a year could be charged steep fees.

While the bill specifies that the fee be based on the “lowest paid employee capable of performing the task,” what if a police department insists it needs an expensive attorney for the job?

It’s unclear if media outlets would face $10,000 fines for seeking police video as for-profit businesses. Would that be considered a bid for “financial gain,” which the bill forbids?

The State Journal newsroom regularly seeks public records from government as a watchdog in the public interest. Being part of a company that earns money has allowed us to report on Madison and Wisconsin for the last 185 years.

James claims it can take police 90 minutes to redact sensitive information from an hour of body-camera footage. But that ignores rapidly improving software that can recognize and blur faces in seconds.

Spiros testified that the bill was “crafted in close coordination with law enforcement.” That’s great for police. But what about the public? The troubling amendment to the bill was introduced just three days before it was approved.

Police have difficult jobs that deserve respect and appreciation.

But the slapdash rewording of this bill is risky for the public’s right to know. The governor should veto SB 789, siding with open government.