Last month the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council did something unexpected. Members voted to award one of its Openness Awards — or Opees — to Gov. Scott Walker.
But in 2016, Walker issued directives ordering state agencies to step up their responses to public records requests. As a result, said FOIC president Bill Lueders, state agencies have responded to records requests more promptly.
“I’d also say that it’s something that Walker didn’t need to do,” Lueders said. “And yet he did it and it made a positive difference.”
According to a Wisconsin State Journal analysis last year, the average records request response times for most government agencies decreased by 30 percent in the year following Walker’s first directive, issued in March 2016. A year later a second executive order required agencies to post response times for open records requests, limited fees they could charge for assembling records and mandated training for employees and officials.
But despite Walker’s directives, state agencies, as well as local governments, law enforcement agencies and school districts, often continue to practice evasive maneuvers.
The biggest problem is that there is almost no enforcement for governments – particularly local governments – to comply with open records laws. The local DAs have no interest in fighting with another government. The only recourse if a person feels like they are getting stiff armed is to sue. But most individuals don’t have the time or money for that and local newspapers and media are starved for money.
The recourse of last resort is to replace the elected officials, but open records is a pretty dry topic to run a campaign on. Even in the most recent local elections, they all tout “transparency,” but once elected the tilt is always toward secrecy.