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Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council celebrates its 40th anniversary

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Bill Lueders (608) 669-4712

September 19, 2018

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council celebrates its 40th anniversary

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its founding with a program on Tuesday, Oct. 30, at the Assembly Parlor in the State Capitol, 3 to 4 pm.

Join us for speakers, cake, and a celebration of open government in Wisconsin.

Attend the unveiling of open government artwork, as well as the Council’s new logo.

The event will follow the council's quarterly meeting earlier that day, starting at 1 and guaranteed to end by 2.

- 30 -

 

September: Scrutinize candidates on openness

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Perhaps no other political issue receives so little attention, relative to its importance, as open government. Elections come and go without candidates addressing this fundamental tenet of a democratic society.

That’s because virtually all candidates, when asked, will say they are big fans of transparency. It’s an easy position to take, a harder one to live up to.

But in Wisconsin’s fall elections, fidelity to open government has come up in several races, for governor, attorney general and U.S. Senate.

Two former state officials have accused Gov. Scott Walker’s administration of dodging the open records law. Former Corrections Secretary Ed Wall and former Secretary of the Department of Financial Institutions Peter Bildsten both allege being advised to not create records that would be subject to release. (Wall was fired in 2016, purportedly for urging another state official to violate the records law by destroying a letter.)

Three state advocacy groups — Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, Center for Media and Democracy and One Wisconsin Now — recently urged the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council to rescind the award it gave Walker in March for issuing executive orders directing state agencies to improve their performance on open records requests. They noted other occasions in which Walker has failed to release information, and dinged him for signing a 2015 bill ending the requirement that donors of more than $100 to political campaigns identify their employer.

The council declined to rescind its award. As the group’s president, I agree that Walker’s record on openness has been mixed, but his executive orders provided some welcome clarity and direction on the law.

Similarly, even though we think Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel also has a mixed record on openness, we welcomed the recent announcement that his office, in response to “a noticeable and concerning increase of inquiries” regarding high records fees, would slash what it was charging and urged other government officials to do the same.

Schimel is up for re-election this fall. His Democratic challenger, Josh Kaul, says Schimel “waited until the middle of his re-election campaign to take action that he could have taken much earlier.” Kaul says that, if elected, he would keep the lower fees.

Meanwhile, Republican state Sen. Leah Vukmir’s ill-considered effort to evade the records law became an issue during her successful bid for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. In that 2014 case, taxpayers got stuck paying $15,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the Center for Media and Democracy.

In advance of the Nov. 6 election, the Council is surveying all candidates for state Legislature, as well as state Senators not up for reelection. We’re asking a small number of transparency-related questions, like whether respondents think legislators should follow the same records retention rules as all other state and local government officials. (Right now, lawmakers legally can — and some do — destroy records at will.) We’ll publicize the results.

Open government is not the only standard by which public officials should be judged. But it is among the most important.

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, is the group’s president.

Last Updated on Friday, 31 August 2018 10:12
 

July: Don’t shut down access to court records

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A few weeks back, while looking into a court case in Waukesha County, I went to the court’s website seeking contact information. There were a few phone numbers but no email addresses. So I called one of the numbers and asked for the judge’s email address.

The judge’s office wouldn’t give it to me.

Given that judges and other court employees use a government email address, I decided to file an open records request, seeking the email addresses of everyone who uses the domain address wicourts.gov, which is administered by the court system.

The response I received from Randy Koschnick, the director of state courts, was chilling: “The Wisconsin Supreme Court intends to decide whether the state court system is subject to the open records law,” he informed me. “The issue is currently under consideration by the Court.”

This was certainly news to me. In response to my follow-up query, Koschnick said there was no pending case regarding this matter, but that the issue has risen recently “so the court has determined that it is appropriate for the court to address it.”

No one I contacted seemed to be aware that the state’s highest court was, on its own initiative, deciding if it could essentially exempt itself from state law, much as the Wisconsin state Legislature tried to do in 2015. That effort was abandoned after a huge public outcry.

The state’s open records law explicitly lists “any court of law” as among the entities that are subject to its provisions. The only way the courts could decide they weren’t covered, it seems, would be through a separation of powers argument — essentially, that the state Legislature has no authority to tell the courts what to do.

If that’s the case, the courts could theoretically exempt themselves from any other law.

My efforts to seek clarification and my request to speak to Chief Justice Patience Roggensack have been ignored. But another court official, spokesman Tom Sheehan, was quoted as saying the court is only considering whether the email addresses have to be released. He cited a “substantial risk" of litigants improperly communicating with judges, which could lead to the need for judges to disqualify themselves.

The email issue is a red herring. If an email is on an inappropriate topic, it can be ignored the same as the judge can ignore any other communication. Obviously, some court officials would prefer to remain inaccessible. Probably so would a lot of mayors and state lawmakers. But this is Wisconsin, where we supposedly believe in open government.

Some judges routinely use their emails, and in most cases their email addresses are easy to figure out. In Waukesha County, all you have to do is put a period between the first and last name and add @ wicourts.gov and voila! If the court really felt that access to email addresses is a threat to justice, why hasn’t it banned judges from making their email addresses public?

For the state’s highest court to exempt itself from the state law on access to records would be an abusive power grab. If that’s what's being considered, Roggensack and the other justices first need to explain themselves.

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. Mark Belling is a radio talk-show host in Milwaukee.

Last Updated on Thursday, 28 June 2018 07:24
 

August: Finalists’ names should be made public

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When the Oconto Police and Fire Commission said in April that it had interviewed two finalists for the open position of chief of police, Kent Tempus of the Oconto County Reporter asked who the finalists were.

It was a simple request, made under the part of Wisconsin’s open records law that requires the naming of final candidates for public offices.

The answer should have been simple, too – but it wasn’t.

City Administrator Sara Perrizo not only refused to name either candidate but said the commission had already voted to hire one of them. She said no announcement would be made until the City Council approved the hiring, two weeks later.

In an email, Oconto City Attorney Frank Calvert had the nerve to write, “I am not aware that the Police & Fire Commission has declared anyone, at this point, to be a Final Candidate as regards the Police Chief position.”

Think about that for a second. It means the attorney didn’t consider the candidate that the commission recommended for hire to be a final candidate.

At that point, the paper and its parent organization, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, hired an attorney to intervene. After a week of back and forth, Perrizo identified the candidate recommended for hire, but still refused to identify the other candidate. The media organizations had enough and sued. Hours after the suit was filed, the city released the name of the other candidate.

Having spent thousands of dollars on legal fees to right the wrong, the media organizations sought reimbursement of their legal costs, as the records law allows. In the end, the city’s insurance company agreed to pay $3,000 – less than half of the fee total.

None of it needed to happen. The law regarding finalists for top positions is clear. And it was clearly violated.

The final candidates provision applies to all local and state public positions; the University of Wisconsin System was largely exempted from the law in 2015. Its purpose is to ensure that the public knows who its government is considering for key positions — and what kind of baggage they might bring to the job.

Consider the three finalists named in July for the position of city administrator in Rhinelander. One of them, former Weston village administrator Dan Guild, had been suspended for 30 days by the village board for what the board called a breach of his employment contract. Another finalist – St. John, Indiana, town manager Steve Kil – was charged in 2015 with stealing yard signs that called for his firing.

Whenever there are at least five applicants for a public position, the law says the names of “each of the five applicants who are considered the most qualified” should be released. Yet Oconto ended up naming only the two finalists it seriously considered. In a similar situation in 2004, the state attorney general concluded that a school district should have released the names of all candidates interviewed for a given job.

Another problem is that the law doesn’t specify when the finalists’ names must be released. As a result, some authorities have tried to dodge its intent by not releasing the names until after a selection is made. The Legislature should close this loophole.

The bottom line is that the finalists law exists for a reason: the public interest in key hiring decisions. Yet it’s a law that is routinely disregarded.

The public deserves better.

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. Larry Gallup is a council member and the consumer experience director for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 01 August 2018 12:00
 

June: Don’t chip away at records access

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One great thing about Wisconsin’s open records law is that it’s not supposed to matter who wants records or why.

The law, enacted in 1983, asserts that no state or local government office may deny a request because the person making it “is unwilling to be identified or to state the purpose of the request.”

This is an important principle, because access to public information should not be limited to people whose motives have been deemed pure. In fact, citizens and political parties often use the law to scrutinize public officials and political opponents. That’s how it should be.

A few years back, the primary author of Wisconsin’s open records law, former state Sen. Lynn Adelman, now a federal judge, told a group of open government advocates that he was prepared to kill the entire bill rather than accept an amendment that would have removed this ability to make anonymous requests. Public records, he felt, needed to be public to all.

Over the years, this ideal has sustained damage. In 1996, the state Legislature limited the ability of incarcerated persons to make records requests. In 2005, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that an alleged sexual harasser could be denied access to unredacted records regarding complaints against him. In 2014, a state appeals court backed up a school district that refused to provide records regarding one of its employees to a man with a history of violence against her.

These are tough cases; inmates, harassers and abusers are not sympathetic figures. But we must be careful about denying access to records based on who is asking.

In late 2016, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld a state agency’s decision to deny a request for training videos, ostensibly to protect sensitive law enforcement techniques. The decision’s author, Justice Rebecca Bradley, noted in passing that the records requester, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, had a “partisan purpose” in making its request.

That’s troubling, because the requester’s purpose shouldn’t matter—and, it can be argued, still does not, despite Bradley’s careless wording. If Democrats can be denied access because they are partisan, so can Republicans. Or anyone.

Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court ruled against a labor union that sought records to help secure votes in a recertification election. The court’s conservative majority accepted arguments, unsubstantiated by any evidence, that the union might use these records to harass. Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, writing in dissent, called this a “concocted concern.”

This case involved a particular set of circumstances, and its reach should not apply to other requests. But we must remain wary about taking any requester’s identity or motives into account. That provides a too-easy out for officials looking for excuses to keep public information under wraps.

To quote from the law, “all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them.” All persons — not just those the government likes.

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, is is the group’s president.

Last Updated on Thursday, 28 June 2018 07:13
 

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