Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council
Capital Newspapers Auditorium
Minutes of the April 23, 2015 meeting
1) Call to order: The meeting was called to order at 1:35 p.m. Present were Dee Hall, Bob Dreps, Steve Lovejoy, Beth Bennett, April Barker, Orville Seymer, Doug Wojcik, Michael King, Gordon Govier, Mark Pitsch, Bob Drechsel, Tom Bier, Bill Lueders, Christa Westerberg, Andy Hall, Gina Duwe. Guests included Attorney General Brad Schimel and DOJ spokeswoman Anne Schwartz; WNA representatives Holly Henschen and Julia Hunter.
2) Approval of minutes: Minutes of the 1-15-15 meeting were approved.
3) Treasurer’s report. Drechsel reported $1,000 in dues revenues and a balance of $4,138.
4) President’s report: Lueders reported: a) Activities of Sunshine Week March 15-21, including an AP story and an Appleton Post-Crescent editorial. b) The council helped a citizen get access to phone records in Racine County. c) Success of the annual Watchdog Awards held April 8; d) The National Freedom of Information Coalition and SPJ have joined funds for open records litigation. NFOIC will have its annual convention Oct. 9-10 in Denver. e) The death of Dave Pyle, former AP regional bureau chief, at age 61.
5) AG Schimel discussed his plans for an upcoming open government summit to examine the state’s open records and open meetings laws and whether they need updating. The council debated at length what types of changes could/should be made including clear guidance on access to body camera and squad car camera videos. Schimel mentioned the high cost of storing and redacting video. Dreps mentioned that privacy issues could become an issue if police enter private homes. “This isn’t going to be simple, whatever the rules are,” Schimel said. He also said police departments are “all over the boards” in terms of how long they keep video. Schwartz said DOJ is looking for suggestions for law changes for the summit, which it also hopes will be educational for records custodians. Bennett said she supports the idea of the summit and believes closed sessions are the “weakest link” in the state’s open meetings law. Seymer also questioned whether custodians would be allowed to start charging for redaction costs. Lueders reiterated the council’s position that complying with records requests is a core function of government. Schimel said he plans to have two full-time people responsible for handling open-records questions and concerns. He predicted there will be improvements in the laws. He said his department has a new policy of acknowledging open records requests within 2 days of receipt. Schimel said he plans to track requests to ensure quick compliance. He noted his office’s response to the officer-involved shooting in Madison in which relevant records and evidence were made available online as soon as possible. But he said his office must be cautious to avoid crime-victim identification. He mentioned a Waukesha County case in which placing information online allowed numerous people to figure out the identity of young victim in a sexual-abuse case who was stopped as he was about to commit suicide. “Not redacting information can also have strong consequences,” he said.
6) Legislative update: Lueders praised the effort that led lawmakers to remove a disclosure exemption for UW research in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget. He mentioned that Rep. Cory Mason was again introducing legislation to make partisan legislative caucus meeting subject to the state open-meetings law. Lueders suggested that a first step would be for Assembly Dems to start holding their caucuses in the open.
7) Legal update: Dreps mentioned that Supreme Court had decided against oral argument in the John Doe cases. He said the case involving the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act likely would have oral argument in September. Dreps recapped the Racine Journal Times’ case involving withholding of police commission records, which the state Supreme Court is expected to rule on in June. He noted the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty sued Jefferson County over redactions it made to records, citing the DPPA.
8) Issue: Is public school student information too public? The council discussed the public records request filed by School Choice Wisconsin for detailed student and parent information. Dreps said there is confusion about the state law provision allowing disclosure of “directory data,” generally a student’s name, sport, height, weight. He noted that Madison allows students to opt out of disclosure and that the district generally doesn’t release information unless it’s for a school-related purpose. He’s not aware of anyone who has challenged that policy.
9) Issue for discussion: Access to autopsy reports. The council discussed varying interpretations of the records law regarding autopsies. Lueders mentioned a 1988 case that limited the ability of coroners to deny such records. Bills introduced in the last two sessions would have made such reports confidential. Westerberg noted that a requester had to sue in Grant County to get an autopsy report. Dreps said there’s no death exception in the federal HIPAA law, but whether the law extends to autopsy reports is “dubious.” Such records are “presumed public” but can be withheld under the balancing test. Lueders expressed concern about any law to deny access to autopsy records. Seymer noted the Fla. Legislature made such records private after the Orlando Sentinel obtained Dale Earnhardt’s autopsy report. Dreps noted that currently in Wisconsin, death certificates are not public.
(Item not on agenda.) Seymer mentioned that a request was made of records involving Mr. Woznicki, whose earlier lawsuit led to the current process for releasing disciplinary records of public employees. Woznicki is again challenging release of records involving his removal as superintendent of the Boscobel school district.
10) Other issues. Numerous other items were discussed including a lawsuit by the city of Billings, Montana against a local newspaper seeking records of possible corruption. Members also discussed problems with various agencies and municipalities taking too long to fill open records requests. There was much discussion about possible law changes, but Lueders suggested the council should push for “surgical” and limited changes and avoid opening the entire law up to revision. Wojcik said access should be guaranteed to all official video including from drones.
11) Website. Duwe said there were no updates.
12) Council membership: Lueders said there’s an open spot for an AP member on the board. Chris Hardie has left the La Crosse Tribune and his position should be filled.
13) Your Right to Know column: Various column ideas were discussed.
14) Other business: Next meeting, July 16 at 1:30 p.m. (Later changed to July 23.)
15) Adjournment: 3:30 p.m.