Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

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February: Citizens have a right to electronic records

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Computers have made examining government records easier than ever. The smallest townships across Wisconsin post the meeting agendas and minutes online. And websites for government agencies at all levels contain an enormous amount of other information.

Electronic records are also available on request. Say you want to see a skate-park-feasibility study you’ve heard about. You can request this record from the agency that keeps it, and receive it via email. The whole process can be completed in minutes.

In the past, such a request might have meant days of waiting for a paper copy with a per-page reproduction cost, as well as postage. A requester might have to first send a check to cover these costs.

Fulfilling requests in a digital fashion benefits both hard-working public employees and the curious public. It saves time and effort. The cost of reproduction is negligible.

There are other advantages in having a record in electronic form. Reading a 50-page paper study takes a long time, but it takes only seconds to search and find a particular phrase within a document on your computer.

And sometimes the paper copy doesn’t tell the whole story. The term “metadata” describes everything in an electronic document that doesn’t appear on a printed page. This may include, say, the name of the file, such as “Secret Meeting Agenda.docx.” Most files also contain the author’s name and information on when it was created and last modified.

In July 2016, the UW System officials refused to release their annual budget proposal, as they had in past years, claiming it had not been finalized. The proposal wasn’t distributed until 90 minutes before the Board of Regents met to take it up, eliminating any chance for public scrutiny. The metadata revealed that no changes had been made to this allegedly unfinished document since six days before the meeting.

Last month a Dane County judge ruled that Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa) should have supplied more than a thousand emails in digital form because the requester specifically asked for them in that format. Legislative staff had offered more than 1,500 pages of paper printouts for in-person review at an Assembly office, with copies available at 15 cents per page.

The requester who brought the suit was Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. “The records were virtually unusable in the provided hard copy because they could not be searched,” the lawsuit said.

Lueders requested emails that Krug received from constituents on proposed changes to the state’s water laws. To properly fulfill this request, Krug’s office likely located the responsive emails using the search function within their email program, looking for particular phrases and bill numbers.

Shouldn’t we all have the benefit of this convenience? Providing records in piles of paper makes them less usable and requires requesters to physically travel to where the records are located to avoid paying for hundreds and even thousands of pages of copies. The Legislature’s policy discourages inquiry and prevents an easy examination of public information.

If you want records in electronic form, ask for them that way. And that’s how responsible officials will provide them—with or without the intervention of the courts.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. John Foust is a Council member and a computer consultant in Jefferson.

Last Updated on Thursday, 01 February 2018 08:23
 

January: Lawmakers should keep promise on transparency

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A week after Republicans in the state Legislature voted to gut the public records law in 2015, members of the Assembly sought to quell backlash over the plan.

A resolution that passed 96-1 affirms that the Assembly “remains committed to our state’s open record and open government laws and policies, and will take all necessary steps to ensure that these laws and policies are preserved without modification or degradation.”

Fast-forward two-and-a-half years: Has the Assembly kept its promise? Here are some recent events to consider.

In November, Assembly Chief Clerk Patrick Fuller and Senate Chief Clerk Jeffrey Renk denied public records requests from multiple news organizations for records of personnel and sexual harassment investigations.

Among other reasons for withholding the documents, the clerks claimed disclosure would have a chilling effect on employees’ use of the Legislature’s internal complaint process. This position was backed by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh), who argued that releasing records in such cases could reveal the names of victims and witnesses, even when identifying information has been blacked out.

Viewed in the best possible light, these are not unreasonable concerns. But courts in Wisconsin have repeatedly affirmed that disclosing records about alleged misconduct by public officials and employees serves the public interest. And judges have found that victims and witnesses can be protected by redacting identifying information while disclosing the substance of what happened.

That same month, the Assembly passed a bill that blocks release of most police body camera footage. Only recordings depicting deaths, injuries, searches and arrests would be subject to release.

The measure further requires law enforcement agencies to deny requests for video recorded in places where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as inside homes, unless all witnesses, victims and property owners sign a waiver consenting to the video’s disclosure.

Open government advocates, including the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, believe the bill unnecessarily hampers access to body camera footage, which the public is paying for. Already, the law allows police to deny release of records when the harm from disclosure outweighs the public interest.

Separately, the Assembly is considering a bill that would seal court records about people wrongfully convicted. The measure, AB 548, effectively turns the public records law on its head by requiring that records be confidential unless a judge finds there is an overriding public interest in access to the documents.

While the aim of the bill is commendable—to help those exonerated rebuild their lives—sealing off all records about wrongful convictions goes too far. Access to such information is essential if the public has any chance at holding prosecutors, judges and the justice system accountable for wrongful prosecutions.

So, to review: The Legislature has refused to release records about personnel and sexual harassment investigations, advanced a bill to restrict access to body cam footage, and is considering legislation to seal off documents about wrongful convictions.

Has the Assembly kept its 2015 commitment to ensure the public records law is “preserved without modification or degradation?” You be the judge.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Council member Jonathan Anderson is a reporter for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.

Last Updated on Thursday, 04 January 2018 12:10
 

November: Good government is everybody’s business

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After 35 years of reporting on government, I’m not sure how much I’ve learned, but I do have some observations.

First, most politicians, government officials and staff want to do a good job and faithfully represent their constituents’ interests at city hall, the state Capitol, and in Congress.

Second, most probably prefer to not have the public looking over their shoulders. Some honestly (and mistakenly) think their work isn’t the public’s business. Some just don’t want to be bothered. Others have more nefarious reasons, and fear that transparency would reveal something unsavory.

Examples abound: Despite talking a good game, the Obama administration was more secretive than its predecessors, setting a new record for denial of open records requests. The Trump administration could end up being even worse in several respects.

In Wisconsin, the most notorious example was in 2015, when Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) tried, with the help of the Walker administration, to gut the state’s open records law. Gov. Scott Walker has since called for quicker responses to records requests but the jury is still out on that. Attorney General Brad Schimel has been an advocate for open government but his office also has drawn criticism from some records requesters.

The state Supreme Court, which should be the staunchest advocate for citizen access, has instead backed closed government in some instances and has made itself less open to the public.

And from Appleton to Milton to Milwaukee County, local officials have tried to block access to records, met in secret when they had no good reason to do so, and otherwise drawn the curtains.

Third observation: Too often, citizens don’t much care. They’re busy with their own work, families and lives. They don’t want to have to worry about whether the village board met in secrecy over some development or an employee’s misbehavior or whether a reporter or a citizen advocate can access records.

An exception was the opposition to Vos’ attack. It was turned back because thousands of citizens flooded legislators with phone calls and emails, joining news organizations such as the Journal Sentinel and advocacy groups such as the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

Holding government officials and politicians accountable should be everyone’s business, because what they do affects all of us. Whether it’s who gets the contract for that public development or who is influencing state legislators in Madison or representatives in Washington, it matters.

Every day there is a new reason for vigilance. On Oct. 31, an Assembly committee approved a deeply flawed bill, AB 351, that would dramatically restrict the public’s access to videos taken by police body cameras. The bill would block the release of any video that did not involve police use of force, arrest or detention and make it extremely difficult to obtain video from private workplaces or residences, even of encounters that raise issues of undeniable public interest.

This bill merits wide public condemnation and rejection.

Good government is the business of every citizen. What we do can make a difference. So although I’m leaving the platform that the Journal Sentinel has generously given me for 35 years, I’ll still do what I can along with my fellow citizens to keep a light on government.

Politicians should remember: We’ll be watching.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Ernst-Ulrich Franzen recently retired as associate editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 01 November 2017 20:29
 

December: Many school districts fail test on records

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State law makes nearly all governmental records open to inspection and copying, and requires custodians to release records “as soon as possible and without delay.”

So how are they doing?

Recently, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty conducted an experiment to see how well school districts are complying with the state’s Open Records Law.

We asked the state’s 20 largest school districts for records from the last two years relating to their compliance procedures and how quickly they fulfilled requests. The results were tabulated in a recent report. Here are some highlights:

The good: Of the 12 school districts that fulfilled our request without charging a fee, six of them (Appleton, Green Bay, Janesville, Racine, Waukesha and West Allis-West Milwaukee) reported response times, on average, of 10 business days or fewer.

Governor Scott Walker, in his 2016 executive order, required state agencies to respond to “small and straightforward requests within 10 business days of receipt.” The order doesn’t bind school districts, but we are happy to see many school districts meeting that deadline anyway. Three other school districts (Fond du Lac, Stevens Point and Sun Prairie) were not far behind, fulfilling requests, on average, within 15 business days.

The bad: Not all districts were so prompt. Middleton-Cross Plains, for example, even though it received only 13 requests over the two-year period, took 16.8 business days, on average, to comply. Oshkosh received only 25 requests, but took almost 20 business days.

Worst of all was Milwaukee Public Schools, with an average response time of 30 business days. While MPS is far larger and receives far more requests than any other school district, the Department of Natural Resources, despite receiving almost 8,000 requests, is able to respond in about 10 business days. The Department of Public Instruction, which has as large of a budget as MPS, responds in about 13 business days.

MPS spends over a billion taxpayer dollars every year; it needs to devote more resources to complying with the Open Records Law.

The ugly: Of the 20 largest school districts, seven (Eau Claire, Elmbrook, Kenosha, Madison, Sheboygan, Wausau and Wauwatosa) would not fulfill our requests without payment. The fees ranged from $15 to, in Madison’s case, more than $1,000.

According to the Madison Metropolitan School District’s attorney, the district does not have a system for tracking open records requests, hence its extremely high fee in this case. While records custodians are allowed to charge for locating records, school districts that need so much time to locate records are apparently not doing a good job of tracking requests. It should not be so hard to find out how well any government entity complies with the law.

The takeaway: Walker’s executive order led to measurable improvements in the response time of state agencies. School districts and other local governments can use the same processes, including better training and tracking systems, to achieve similar improvements.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Tom Kamenick is deputy counsel with the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. Libby Sobic is an associate counsel at the firm.

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 November 2017 15:57
 

October: Are officials giving out too much information?

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The nonprofit group I belong to is called the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. Our mission is to protect and expand access to public records.

Usually this entails pushing state and local government officials to be as open as possible. But lately, a number of developments raise a peculiar concern: Are officials being too open?

In June, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in Teague v. Schimel that the state Department of Justice defamed a Milwaukee man by releasing information on offenses committed by a relative who used his name as an alias, without making this clear. The majority felt the agency needed to provide more complete information, in the interest of accuracy. No problem. More information is good.

But litigation has also been brought against public officials for releasing information that is indisputably correct. A woman who accused former UW basketball coach Bo Ryan of misconduct (an internal probe found no wrongdoing) has sued university officials for allegedly revealing her identity, calling this “unreasonable, intentional, reckless, malicious, willful, arbitrary, capricious and/or highly offensive to a reasonable person.” The case is pending in federal court.

And a former Green Bay police officer is suing the city of Green Bay for fulfilling a records request from a newspaper regarding the circumstances of his departure. He says the release violated a confidentiality agreement and caused him embarrassment, monetary losses and emotional harm.

Courts have recognized a strong public interest in knowing more about the individuals who patrol our streets, manage our tax dollars, teach our children, and represent us in government. This interest has been deemed more important than the privacy rights of individual public employees.

Then there are those who want to restrict access to data on the state’s online court records system. They say no one should be able to see that they were charged with a crime if they weren’t convicted; some folks don’t even want people to know if they were. A state committee has recommended reducing the display times for dismissed cases, which would remove thousands of files from the site. That’s a troublesome precedent—responding to a perceived problem by taking information away.

Information compiled by government at taxpayer expense belongs to everyone—even if that is at times unwelcome.

Recently, the state Justice Department began compiling a "snapshot" of pending records requests on its website, updated weekly. It’s even begun posting records released in response to requests of particular public interest.

Such disclosure is painful for reporters who want to protect their ability to break stories. Now their competitors can track what matters they are looking into and potentially obtain key documents the same time as they do. A similar proposal in Scotland was decried as an attack on the press.

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council discussed the Justice Department’s new moves toward transparency at its last meeting and agreed to support the changes, even though it may mean an occasional blown scoop. We stood with our values if not necessarily our interests.

That’s the thing about information: sometimes it hurts. A free society has to accept that.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Bill Lueders, managing editor of The Progressive magazine, is the council’s president.

Last Updated on Monday, 02 October 2017 11:02
 

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