Walter H. Besley may well have been Wisconsin’s first open-government crusader.
Back in 1853, five years after Wisconsin became a state, Besley, the clerk of circuit court in Jefferson County, billed the County Board of Supervisors $22 for two expenses: wood to furnish his office and a large box of candles to light and warm it.
The board rejected the expenditure. Besley sued and won. The board was ordered to pay these expenses, plus interest and “the costs of suit.”
In 1856, the Wisconsin Supreme Court heard the case on appeal. It affirmed the circuit court’s ruling, citing a state law mandating that the clerk and other county officials “keep his office open during business hours, Sundays excepted, and all books and papers required to be kept in this office shall be open for the examination of any person.”
The court said the Legislature’s intent was clear: “to accommodate the wants of the citizens” who had business to transact. “To require these officers to keep their offices open during business hours,” it wrote, “and yet provide no means of warming or lighting them would be simply absurd.”
While the law did not require the clerk “to keep a tavern” — which presumably would also accommodate the wants of some citizens — “it is clearly the object and intention of the statute that these county offices shall be kept open, and in a suitable condition.” Thus the expenses presented by Besley were “a proper and legal county charge” that the board was wrong to reject.