August: Records fix shows system can work

2003 Columns

Against the backdrop of bitter partisan fighting over the state budget, there was a flagrant act of good government committed in Madison this political season.

In a spirit of bipartisanship seldom seen these days, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a bill that will go along way toward restoring Wisconsin’s time-honored reputation for open, clean government. The new law clarifies and improves Wisconsin’s open records statutes by reversing the harm caused by several harmful State Supreme Court decisions.

In the 1996 Woznicki vs. Erickson case and subsequent decisions, the court opined that public employees who are the subject of records have a right to go to court to prevent their release. That can’t happen unless the subject is notified, so, by judicial fiat, the process of notification and court review suddenly became the law of the land in Wisconsin.

This may sound reasonable on the surface, but when a court makes law, it tends to get messy. That certainly was the case with “Woznicki.”

Across the state, public record keepers struggled with the hows, whos, whens and whys of this new process. The net effect was that records that were once readily accessible to the public were now only released after a long, often expensive legal jangle.

It always was a little intimidating for the average citizen to ask a government office for what someone might consider “sensitive” information. After Woznicki, the task became even more daunting. Some heavy covers had to be pulled back to shed light on public officials, even those who had been disciplined for on-the-job misconduct.

The law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jim Doyle eliminates the notice and review process for the vast majority of public records. Now, citizens are again entitled to unfettered access to all but the most sensitive records in public employees’ personnel files.

The law clearly establishes that disciplinary records regarding elected officials and appointed department heads are public information. And it creates a process and time frame for notification and review, ending years of confusion.

Due to the state’s budget woes, taxpayers have a heightened interest in the performance and accountability of public officials. People want to know the return on their investment of tax dollars. This law will make it much easier to do that.

But getting the Legislature to do the right thing was not an easy task. In the greater scheme of things, this was not a sexy issue. There is not a lot of money involved, so nobody’s palm was getting greased.

Ironically, it was the state’s growing interest in privacy rights that led to the development of this bill. Gov. Tommy Thompson’s Privacy Task Force was the genesis of the law and a public-private Legislative Study Council created the version that eventually passed.

The reason these citizen groups took on this relatively obscure issue is clear: whenever anyone with a sincere interest in public policy took a hard look at the state of the opens record law, they discovered this had to be fixed. Several early versions were killed under pressure from groups representing public employees. But the issue persisted, in fact because the political scandals of 2002 made accountability a hot button issue.

They say luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, but in this instance, it was what happened when opportunity met leadership.

It was the bipartisan efforts of Rep. Mark Gundrum (R-New Berlin) and State Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) that put together the fragile coalition to fix the law. These lawmakers shepherded the bill through a reluctant Legislature, and beat back the interests that sought to derail it.

Passing this fix was simply the right thing to do. So is protecting Wisconsin’s traditions of openness in government.

At a time when political cynicism is understandably at an all-time high, it’s heartening to know the system can, and occasionally does, work.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column produced by the Wisconsin Freedom of Informational Council, a statewide media group devoted to protecting the state’s open records and open meetings laws. Jeff Hovind is the group’s president.