July 17, 2007

Meeting minutes

Minutes for Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council July 17 meeting,

Capital Newspapers, Madison, Wis.

Present: Bob Welch, John Laabs, Michelle Vetterkind, Dave Pyle, Roger Schneider, Bob Dreps, Rebecca Mason, Doug Wojcik, Randy Winter, Michael Buelow, Anita Weier, Christa Westerberg, Gordon Govien, Bob Drechsel, Jeff Hovind, Tom Bier, Peter Fox, Bill Lueders, Craig Swanson, John Vander Meer, Dick Mial.

Meeting called to order at 1:30 p.m.

Minutes and treasurers report were approved.

President’s report: Bill Lueders reported that Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen’s office said it would return to issuing opinions. Lueders is getting opinions and letters from the Attorney General’s office. He asked if Godfrey and Kahn could go through them to see what is significant and what should be on the FOIC Web site. Bob Dreps of Godfrey and Kahn said the problem with letters is that they are of little value except to the individual, and they are not accessible to most people.
Lueders said 1,000 wallet cards with summaries of the Open Meetings and Open Records laws could be printed for about $200.

Committee Reports
Finance Committee: Peter Fox said the council needs a good management system for determining how much is needed to be spent on amicus briefs for court cases. A report on the issue was discussed, including the proposed creation of a committee on amicus briefs would be made up of Peter Fox and Dave Zweifel (representing Wisconsin Newspapers Association), and John Laabs and Dick Record (Wisconsin Broadcasters Association). Laabs moved that the council adopt the report, and especially the recommendation for the structure of the committee. Fox noted that if in the future there is another funding source other than the WNA and the WBA, that there could be a re-evaluation of the system.

Police Records Committee: Bob Dreps said the goal is to provide some structure for what is public, as Minnesota’s Comprehensive Law Enforcement Data law does. Unlike Minnesota’s law, Wisconsin subjects things to a balancing test on a case-by-case basis. “You don’t get to see anything in this state that they don’t want to share,” Dreps said. Peter Fox suggested that anyone on the council who has not read the Minnesota law do so and make suggestions. The Minnesota law treats everything after the incident report as part of the investigation, but every report (with some exceptions for confidential witnesses, etc.) eventually becomes public. John Laabs cautioned about the dangers in changing the law, and said it would be better if it came out of the Legislative Council. Fox replied that he always believed it was too risky to open up the law to changes, until he read the Minnesota law. “You have to read this thing in order to understand the beauty of it,” he said. He added that the Minnesota Statutes are much more citizen-friendly than the Wisconsin statutes. It was suggested that everyone on the council get a copy of the Minnesota law, then a subgroup would meet with Rep. Mark Gundrum and come to the next quarterly meeting with a recommendation.

Open government litigation
Bob Dreps said that on the issue of whether bill drafts should be open to the public, a settlement proposal would have allowed for hearing to be held 24 hours after the bill’s introduction (he noted that a week would have been better). In any event, the settlement died. A court ruled that bill drafts are not public.

Dreps said he is pleased with the results of the Zellner case, in which the State Supreme Court ruled that 1,500 adult images found on a Cedarburg teacher’s work computer are public records and should be made public. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had made an open records request for the images. In the Buswell case, the State Supreme Court overturned an eight-year-old appeals court ruling and said government bodies must spell out in their meeting notices the business they will discuss.  Dreps said he would like reporters to follow up in the future to see if things are really changed.

Council member Christa Westerberg is working on an amicus brief on a case involving the Beaver Dam Area Development Corp. At issue is whether that group is a quasi public agency and should be subject to the open meetings law. Lueders moved that the council sign on the Beaver Dam case brief.

Legislative issues
Assembly Bill 418, introduced by Rep. Marlin Schneider, D-Wisconsin Rapids, seeks to limit public access to the CCAP court records Web site. There are currently no senate sponsors of the legislation. Lueders said if the bill moves at all, the FOIC should issue an alert.

A.B. 437, establishing a Government Accountability Board, no longer has jail penalties for those who leak information to the media, but it keeps the fines.

Peter Fox said there are proposals to remove public notices from paid circulation publications. The thinking is that such notices can be put on the Internet, but Fox said that makes it the responsibility of citizens to check on what’s happening in government, and allows government to abdicate its responsibility to actively push out information to the public.

Shield Law: John Vander Meer of Rep. Joe Parisi’s office talked about a shield law proposal. He said Wisconsin is one of 13 states that does not have a shield law for journalists. The issue raises some questions: What is a journalist? Should a journalist be given privileges that are not available to the public? Are bloggers journalists? Where does one draw the line? Fox thanked Vander Meer for his interest and Rep. Parisi’s interest in the issue. It was suggested that a three member committee (Tom Biers, Peter Fox and Dave Zweifel) write a report about past efforts to enact a shield law, and circulate that report to WBA, WNA and FOIC members.

Craig Swanson of the Kenosha News raised an open meetings law question about the Pleasant Prairie Village Board, which has been deficient about providing information about meetings. Two months ago, the News ran a story saying that the board was holding closed meetings, possibly in violation of the law. The question is: Can a public body claim its members were not discussing public business? Dreps said the law is not toothless, but in the end it would be up to a jury to decide, if a formal open meetings violation case were held.

The meeting was adjourned at 3:57 p.m.

– Submitted by Dick Mial, FOIC secretary.