April: New law improves records access

2004 Columns

When Gov. Jim Doyle signed a law reforming the state’s records statutes last August, it was hailed as a bright new day for open government in Wisconsin.

The new law was a response to state Supreme Court decisions that flew in the face of the presumption that records should be open, accessible and released without delay.

Starting with the 1996 Woznicki vs. Erickson, the court ruled that people who are the subject of records affecting their privacy or reputation have a right to go to court to prevent their release. That created a new need for notification and court review.

The Woznicki case dealt with district attorney records, but subsequent cases extended notice-and-review rights to virtually all record subjects. In short order, record keepers across the state were struggling with the hows, whens and whys of this new process. Records that were previously readily accessible were now often released only after long and costly legal fights.

The new law — the so-called Woznicki fix — eliminated the notice and review process for the vast majority of public records. Now, citizens again enjoy unfettered access to all but the most sensitive records in public employees’ personnel files. The law also establishes a process and timeframe for notification and review.

By most accounts, the new law is working as intended. Both those who regularly use records and the officials responsible for keeping them appear satisfied with how the reforms have been implemented.

Lawyers who staff a statewide freedom of information hotline for media professionals report few problems associated with the new law. And record custodians at all levels of government are relieved to have clarity and legislative direction when it comes to responding to records requests.

At a meeting last fall to explain the new law to local officials, Waukesha District Attorney Paul Bucher summed it up quite succinctly: “If you are a records custodian and somebody asks you for a record, give ’em the damn record. I would give them the record unless I had a pretty good reason not to.”

That message has been delivered and heard throughout the state. Finally, the word “Woznicki” is disappearing from the government vernacular.

While that accomplishment was the main intent of the new law, its authors did more than reverse judicial fiat. They also included provisions to head off open records hassles before they occurred.

A less-publicized section of the statute restated the obligations of government to “adopt and prominently display” a notice establishing times and places where records may be obtained. The notice must also identify which offices keep what records, and state the cost of obtaining copies.

Further, the new law requires government bodies to identify the job titles that are exempt from the notification provisions afforded to rank-and-file government workers.

The intent of this provision is clear: the Legislature wants all levels of government to make these decisions in advance, with public input, then post them to make it easier for citizens to access information. Unfortunately, many records custodians have ignored this part of the law.

At Waukesha’s City Hall, for example, no such posting could be found. (Ironically, as I was scanning the bulletin boards for a notice, a bewildered citizen asked where he could find records regarding a major development project.)

Waukesha is not alone. Many government bodies across Wisconsin have failed to create and display these important policies.

They should be encouraged to do so immediately. Not only is it a good public policy, it’s the law. Stat. 19.34, section 2, para. (1) to be exact.

Sadly, we live in a time when political corruption is severely tarnishing Wisconsin’s reputation for clean government. Now, more than ever, we need accountability from our government, which can only come from full disclosure. Full compliance with the open records law, including this latest reform, is one of the best means citizens have to achieve that accountability.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column produced by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a media group devoted to protecting public access to meetings and records. Jeff Hovind, the council’s president, is editor and publisher of the Waukesha Freeman.