July: Record delays are contrary to the law

2023 Columns

In early April, I requested some records from the Madison Police Department regarding what it said was the sole disciplinary action taken against an MPD officer or employee in the first three months of this year.

It was an exceedingly minor matter — a sergeant who got a one-day suspension for sending an “unprofessional email to command staff.” And all I wanted was to see the complaint that would disclose what the email said and some document that explained how the matter was concluded. Just a few sheets of paper.

The response I received said the request had to go through the MPD’s records custodian, Julie Laundrie, who informed me: “I am currently at 14 months for personnel requests to receive [a] reply.”

Fourteen months?

Laundrie’s official explanation is that she puts requests for personnel records into a queue with other, often voluminous requests, which are handled in order. (The office now says it may just be a few more weeks.) But the real reason for the delay is that the department, like too many other public agencies in Wisconsin, does not devote enough resources to handling records requests.

It’s a problem that has grown markedly worse in recent years, as agencies have gotten bolder in exploiting the lack of specificity in the state’s open records law regarding the question of “How long is too long?”

The Madison Metropolitan School District, for instance, has been sued at least five times since 2021 for long delays in responding to records requests, while a staff position for records work went unfilled. Like some other records custodians, the district seems to think “We’re busy doing other things” is an acceptable reason for not providing records in a timely fashion. It isn’t.

The state’s open records law, enacted in 1981, directs all state and local government officials to respond to records requests “as soon as practicable and without delay,” but sets no precise time frames. The state’s attorney general’s office, which has statutory authority to interpret and enforce this law, has long advised that “a reasonable time” for responding to most simple requests is ten working days, although actually providing the records may take longer.

Gov. Scott Walker passed executive orders in 2016 and 2017 that set tighter response times for state agencies — requiring them, for instance, to fulfill and not just respond to “small and straightforward” requests within 10 business days when possible. But those rules did not apply to local governments and are no longer considered binding past Walker’s term.

The AG’s Office of Open Government, under both Democratic and  Republican leadership, has not taken a hard line against records custodians for taking too long. And indeed, a report by the Wisconsin Examiner found that the office itself had more than three dozen records requests that remained unfulfilled after more than a year. The office met its own 10-day guideline for just 46% of the 924 records requests it received in 2022.

This is not okay. A vital but often overlooked part of the open records law says providing records in response to requests “is declared to be an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of officers and employees whose responsibility it is to provide such information.”

If an agency lacks staff to handle the volume of requests it receives, it should allocate more staff, as happened recently with the city attorney’s office in Green Bay, which had fallen behind in handling requests.

Responding promptly to record requests is not just a good government best practice. It’s the law. And sooner or later, the courts are going to have to enforce it.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Bill Lueders is the Council’s president.