Tag Archives: Open Records

Hazy sunshine in local government

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. I share my uneven experiences with Open Records Requests with three local governments. Here’s a part:

What have we learned about the ability for a Wisconsin citizen to peer into the workings of our government?

First, if a government wants to be obstinate, there is not much that a citizen can do about it. While the city of West Bend and Washington County were appropriately responsive and cooperative, the West Bend School District and board members threw up multiple roadblocks including ignoring requests and imposing an unnecessary and exorbitant fees. As a private citizen, all one can do is sue the government at great personal expense or file a complaint with the district attorney or attorney general. Historically, neither agency has ever been aggressive in enforcing open records laws. Government looks out for government.

Second, all three governments are doing a poor job of retaining and making available public records to occur outside of government-provided technology. In our modern age, it is not uncommon for public officials to communicate with citizens, vendors, lobbyists, employees, and others through multiple digital channels including SMS, social media, and various chat technologies. In fact, this is becoming commonplace with the ubiquitousness of personal devices.

If those public officials are using those technologies, they are creating a public record that should be open to public scrutiny for a reasonable amount of time. Otherwise, it is far too easy for our government officials to conduct themselves as angels in their official email while hiding their corruption in their personal devices. Every government needs to take the proactive step to implement policies regarding the preservation and retention of public records irrespective of format.

Wisconsin has great laws regarding open records, but they are only as good as government officials are willing to obey and enforce them. We still have work to do to ensure that our government is open and accountable.

 

Dane County Judge Supports Voter Intimidation

A Dane County Judge strikes again.

Madison — A Dane County judge on Monday ruled a state commission violated the open records law last year when it refused to quickly turn over information about a union election.

[…]

The elections are overseen by the commission and held over 20 days, with ballots cast over the phone and over the Internet. Unions want to monitor who is voting so they can encourage those who haven’t done so to cast their ballots.

The union Madison Teachers Inc. on Nov. 10 sought documents under the open records law that would show who had voted so far in the election that ran from Nov. 4 to Nov. 24. The commission’s chairman, James Scott, denied the request while the election was ongoing.

After the election — which the union won overwhelmingly — the commission released records showing who had voted.

The union then sued the commission, a three-member panel appointed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the architect of Act 10.

The commission had to promptly make available information about who had voted because the records law requires documents to be produced “as soon as practicable and without delay,” the union argued in its lawsuit.

Anderson agreed the records were wrongly withheld. He said the matter was important to resolve because it could come up again this fall, when hundreds of public-sector unions will hold elections.

The commission maintained it could not release the records while the election was pending because doing so could result in “voter coercion.” It also contended releasing the records would undermine the secrecy of the ballots because non-votes are considered “no” votes.

If the union truly wanted to just “encourage” people to vote, they wouldn’t need a list. They would just run campaigns encouraging everyone to vote. If they are doing calls, then they can simply mark someone as having voted if they are told so. No, the union wants the ongoing list of who voted while the election is going on so that they can bully and intimidate people.

 

Lawsuit Filed Over Open Records Format

It will be interesting to see the results of this suit.

Bill Lueders, the president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and a longtime reporter, filed a suit against Krug (R-Nekoosa) on Friday in Dane County after the legislator refused to provide him with an electronic copy of records in addition to paper copies. Electronic copies are easier to search through than paper copies.

The open records law must be “construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access, consistent with the conduct of governmental business,” according to the state statute.

“We think that it is clear that requesters are entitled to records in electronic format. I was told ‘no,’ and I think that’s a problem,” Lueders said.

In an emailed statement, Krug said that since he was elected in 2010, he has “fully complied” with all open records requests his office has received.

“The open records request from Bill Lueders was properly fulfilled and followed the law,” he said.

This has been an annoyance of mine for years. Every time I do an open records request for emails, they responding body insists on printing them even though I always ask for them in electronic format. One government body told me once that they do that because they make a copy of what they give me to make sure they have a record of what was given to me – just in case I decide to alter it or something. That seems like a pretty flimsy excuse.

I’ve always suspected that the real reason is to make it more of a pain for people asking for records. A government body is entitled to charge the person asking for records for reasonable fees associated with fulfilling the request. This is often 25 ot 50 cents per printed page, so a request that totals a few thousand pages can really add up quickly. Also, as Lueders points out, it makes it impossible to search through documents for key words and such.

So while Krug is right in so far as he did comply with the law and did do it in such a way that is commonplace across Wisconsin, the normal way in which open records requests are answered is unnecessarily difficult for citizens

Speaker Vos Asked for Open Records Changes

Hmmm

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos requested the controversial changes to the state’s open records law that would have significantly diminished the public’s ability to monitor how its government works, records obtained by the State Journal show.

Vos is cited as the “draft requester” for the legislation in a June 29 email from Legislative Reference Bureau attorney Michael Gallagher to the offices of legislative leadership and to staff on the Legislative Council and in the state’s fiscal and reference bureaus.

The email is among about 1,000 pages of documents obtained on Wednesday by the State Journal from the office of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.

It provides the clearest evidence yet of the origin of the records proposal, and shows Vos’s office coordinated the drafting of the ultimate bill language.

Of course, the offensive language that ended up in front of Joint Finance wasn’t the same as the original request, but at least we know who started it.

An attempted assault on open government

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:

Something very troubling happened in the Republicanled Joint Finance Committee last week for which the public needs more answers than have been offered. The Republican majority passed a series of sweeping provisions that would be a severe setback for open and transparent government.

As part of a larger budget bill, the JFC voted to keep the drafting files for legislation secret and give legislators the legal privilege to refuse to divulge any communication that occurred during their term and to prohibit their employees from doing the same. In short, the measures passed by the JFC allow elected politicians to keep the vast majority of their communications and records secret from the citizens they serve.

The opposition to this attack on open government was swift, fierce and came from all sides of the political spectrum. Conservative Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel blasted the move, saying “Transparency is the cornerstone of democracy and the provisions in the budget bill limiting access to public records move Wisconsin in the wrong direction.”

Liberal state Sen. Jon Erpenbach said “Creating exemptions in open records laws in the dark of the night is the biggest mistake Republicans could ever make.” Erpenbach may be underestimating the Republicans’ ability to make mistakes, but he and Schimel are absolutely correct. Open and transparent government is a necessary and fundamental component of a Republican form of government. Citizens are robbed of their ability to make intelligent and informed decisions about their representatives if they are purposefully rendered ignorant of those representatives’ actions.

In the face of such withering dissent from all sides, Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican leaders of the Legislature have relented. Although the provisions restricting open government are still part of the budget bill the JFC passed, the Republicans have pledged to remove those provisions from the budget altogether.

In a statement by Walker, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Joint Finance Committee Co-Chairpersons Sen. Alberta Darling and Rep. John Nygren, they said, “The intended policy goal of these changes was to provide a reasonable solution to protect constituents’ privacy and to encourage a deliberative process between elected officials and their staff in developing policy. It was never intended to inhibit transparent government in any way.”

First, their statement is, on its face, unbelievable. The documents that the bill would have hidden from public view were mostly those between legislators, their staffs, lobbyists and others involved in the legislative process. Relatively few actual constituents are involved enough in that process to require such drastic measures to protect their privacy. And the claim that it was “never intended to inhibit transparent government in any way” is just plain false. There can be no other result of such laws other than to inhibit transparent government.

Second, even though Walker and the Republicans have reversed course on restricting open government, that is not good enough. The Republicans are not admitting who put the open government restrictions in the budget bill or what the real purpose was. They are also not being forthright on whether Walker knew of or supported the restrictions before they were made public. Generally speaking, the Republican leaders of the Legislature would not put anything in the budget without the governor’s approval, but the Republicans have been very disjointed with Walker on the presidential campaign trail.

What we do know is that the 12 Republican members of the Joint Finance Committee voted to severely restrict open government and shield politicians from public scrutiny. The people deserve to know the truth about the creation and purpose of those restrictions so that they can hold their representatives accountable for their actions.

Owen Robinson is a West Bend resident. Reach him .