A ruling last year by the Wisconsin Supreme Court involving the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel became the focus of attention Feb. 27, when a state Assembly committee held a public hearing on a bill, AB 26, that would drastically increase the cost of obtaining public records.
The bill, if approved, would let custodians of public records charge a fee for redacting sensitive information. It was introduced in reaction to the court’s ruling that such fees are not allowed under current law.
I spoke at the hearing against the bill, as did representatives of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. Among those speaking in favor were representatives of the Wisconsin Counties Association, League of Wisconsin Municipalities, and University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The proponents argued that they incurred huge costs reviewing and redacting records, especially for voluminous requests.
But this is a function that public officials are paid to do. And, in fact, the Open Records Law currently allows custodians to charge requesters for the cost of locating the records when the fee exceeds $50. In addition, requesters already are paying for copying costs.
Last year alone, the Journal Sentinel spent more than $22,400 to obtain open public records and database searches, and over the last five years we’ve spent more than $86,000 on public records requests.
Those totals do not include legal fees. Adding more fees on top of what already is required in the statute will put many record searches out of the reach of many news organizations, let alone the general public.
Moreover, the Journal Sentinel routinely works closely with record-keepers to make sure our requests are focused, narrow and specific. We are a news business that wants to obtain records as soon as we can. It is not in our best interest to burden record-keepers with unnecessary work that would delay the release of records.
It is the responsibility of record-keepers to maintain orderly records so they can be retrieved effectively and efficiently. Many record-keepers in Wisconsin and elsewhere already have converted records to digital formats in ways that keep sensitive material in specific columns so that information can be redacted with a keystroke.
We suggested several ways that custodians could reduce the cost of redacting, from putting more public records online to allowing clerks at lower pay to do the redacting.
Among the most poignant testimony came from a Madison woman who said she wasn’t affiliated with any organization. The parent of a child with special needs, she has made a number of records requests of her local school district, and has encountered what she already feels are excessive costs.
Should public records be available only to those who can afford to get them?
The public owns and has the right to see the records of its government, with a few reasonable exceptions. Public records do not belong to administrators and bureaucrats — some of whom, experience tells us, would use these proposed redaction fees to hide problems and keep taxpayers and voters from learning about potentially embarrassing or even incriminating documents.
For our democracy to work, people must know what their government is up to. We need openness and transparency. Adding another cost to gain access to public documents increases the potential for abuse, waste and ineffective management, at all levels of government.