My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:
We all got a glimpse of spring this Saturday with warm temperatures and bright sunshine before gloomy, cold rain settled into southeast Wisconsin on Sunday, but the nation is aglow this week as Sunshine Week commences, celebrating access to public information.
Access to public records sounds like a boring issue that only reporters and politicians care about, but it is a vital issue that is absolutely necessary for we, the people, to govern. As a self-governing people, we have to know what our representatives and employees in government are doing so we can make informed decisions. Without that visibility into the workings of our government, we would be unable to effectively govern ourselves.
But not all people in government like open records laws or strive to adhere to them. Some of them are up to no good, but some just don’t like the scrutiny. Sometimes that resistance comes in the form of legislation or regulations seeking to hide records. That was the case in a bill moving through the Wisconsin legislature that would have deemed some records from medical examiners to be excluded from open records requirements. Thankfully, that offensive language was dropped.
But some of the resistance comes at the point of executing an open records request. Government employees have been known to take an unacceptable amount of time to fill requests for records. They have also been caught charging ridiculously huge fees for records in order to discourage people from picking them up. Some government officials have been caught ignoring open records requests altogether or illegally destroying records.
It is a constant push by the public to ensure our records remain accessible and open for our perusal. To that end, Gov. Scott Walker issued an executive order directing state agencies to take some measures to ensure compliance with the state’s open records laws. Those measures include implementing standardized best practices for processing requests, defining and publishing standard response times for normal requests, clarifying the costs of requests up front, and requiring training about public records for all state employees. These measures will help further the goal of making it easy for the public to access public records.
While some government officials actively resist the public prying into their business, most of them try their hardest to serve the public in good faith. As someone who has filed many open records requests over the years, I have found most government officials to be helpful and thorough in complying with my requests. It helps to know how to ask correctly, so here are a few hints.
First, know the rules. When filing an open records request, you are not required to give your identity or a reason for the request. You can if you want, but it is not necessary. Remember that your request is itself a record that is subject to the open records law.
Second, know what a record is, and is not. A record is almost anything, in any form, that has been recorded or preserved by an authority. It does not include things like drafts, notes, or things unrelated to the public’s business. The law requires the government to surrender records that it has, but if a record does not exist, it is not required to create something new. Also, not everything that passes through government must be kept, much less kept forever. A government is prohibited from destroying a record after someone has asked for it, but they are permitted to dispose of most old records after a period of time. Unless we are willing to spend a fortune to save everything forever, this is perfectly reasonable.
Third, be specific and reasonable. Yes, you can ask for every email sent by anyone in government over three years to go on some fishing expedition, but it will be timeconsuming and expensive to fulfill that request. Someone has to comb through everything to redact information that should not be made public. Try to narrow your request as much as possible and it will make it easier and more likely for you to get what you want. Remember that the bigger the net is, the longer it will take to fill it.
Finally, be nice. While answering public records requests is a part of a government official’s job, it is not their entire job. And they are just a person like you. I have often found them to be helpful and friendly if you are understanding and nice — especially with local government officials. If they are not, then get aggressive.
We need to keep pressure on ensuring our public records remain open through traditional means, but we must also push to utilize modern technology to make records more accessible. For example, the city of West Bend regularly publishes detailed spending reports by amount, department and vendor on their website for public scrutiny. If the public has a question about a particular expenditure, it provides easy access to know how to ask for more details. Putting more records online and making them searchable should be a consideration with every technological improvement our government makes moving forward.
An open government is a prerequisite of a selfgoverning people. As we celebrate Sunshine Week, may that sunshine burn bright and hot.