A legislative wish-list for open government in Wisconsin


Possible changes in law or policy to increase transparency, as identified by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

Updated November 2023

Add statutory time limits for responding to records requests

Under the state’s Open Records Law, state and local officials are required to respond to records requests “as soon as practicable and without delay.” This has allowed some custodians to accumulate backlogs that lead to long waits for records. The Council supports adding language so that the statute reads “as soon as practicable and without delay but in no cases longer than 10 business days for simple requests.” The exact number of days and precise language could be set based on further input.  

Recording of closed meetings

Currently, there is no way to know whether public bodies are going into closed session for legitimate reasons. The Council favors a statutory requirement that closed meetings be recorded on audio or video, allowing for in camera review if their legality is challenged. Other states, including Iowa and Illinois, have similar statutes. No legislation to accomplish this has been introduced in Wisconsin.

Make state lawmakers subject to state records retention rules

Current state law prescribes mandatory minimum retention rules for all state and local government officials, except members of the Legislature. A city engineer in a small city must preserve correspondence but a state lawmaker can destroy it at will. The law should be changed to end this exception. In the meantime, lawmakers should be challenged to voluntarily retain relevant records.

Make the Legislature subject to the state’s Open Meetings Law

The state Supreme Court, in its 2011 ruling Ozanne v. Fitzgerald, decided that the Legislature’s adherence to the Open Meetings Law is not subject to judicial review, effectively exempting the Legislature from the law. The Council supports legislation to make the Legislature explicitly subject to the law.

Eliminate open meetings exemption for legislative caucuses

Lawmakers routinely meet as a caucus behind closed doors to hash out legislation. The Council challenges the Legislature to open at least some of these sessions, and let the public see the good work that is being done.

Require that all legislative proposals have an identified sponsor

Lawmakers have regularly used omnibus bills introduced by committee leaders and other strategies to avoid being associated with controversial proposals. The state Legislature should prohibit any rule, motion, bill or amendment from being introduced without a clearly identified sponsor and cosponsors.

Update the location cost threshold

When the state’s Open Records Law passed in 1981, it stated that custodians could charge only for location fees of $50 or more. The intent was to give requesters an initial $50 of free location effort, reserving this charge for larger requests. Adjusted for inflation, $50 in 1981 would be about $170 today. The Council supports updating this amount, as Gov. Tony Evers has proposed. The Council would also support language to cap the cost of locating and reproducing records at $25 per hour, and clarify that employee benefits may not be charged to requesters as part of this hourly rate

Increase funding to custodians

The Legislature should take steps to make sure custodians have funding they need to hire staff or contractors to help with responses, either through a state-funded program or by allowing municipalities to raise additional tax dollars. It should also look into whether there needs to be better funding to the Wisconsin Department of Justice for staffing in the Office of Open Government, to ensure it promptly and adequately responds to citizen inquiries about the open records and open meetings laws. And the state should provide technical assistance to custodians (like video editing to blur out faces in police body cam video.)

End loophole in finalist disclosure law

Wisconsin’s open records law requires, at 19.346(7), that public bodies disclose the names of finalists, typically at least five, for most non-classified state positions, or for any local public office, as defined by statute. (This provision was regrettably altered in the 2015-16 budget to exempt the University of Wisconsin from the need for full compliance.) The law does not specify when these names must be released, prompting some authorities to wait until after a selection is made. This is a loophole that should be plugged.

Amend “Woznicki statute” to avoid delays

The so-called Woznicki statute (19.356) requiring custodians to give advance notice of their intention to release records concerning certain individuals, giving them an opportunity to sue to block release, is intended to be a fast process. But while the statute requires the court to make a decision within 10 days, general rules of pleading allow service of the summons and complaint as late as 90 days after the suit is filed, thus turning a 10-day turnaround into a 100-day turnaround. A good fix would be to tie a decision to the date of filing the summons and complaint, or shortening the normal 90-day period for service.

Mandatory disclosure by certain users of online court records

Since it went operational in April 1999, the state’s online court records system, Wisconsin Circuit Court Access (commonly and incorrectly called CCAP), has faced repeated legislative attempts to restrict what information is available. A common charge is that landlords and employers are using the system to unfairly discriminate against applicants. The Council supports a provision, introduced as part of a failed 2013 bill, AB 253, to require users who deny applicants housing, employment or accommodations based on information in the system to disclose this.

End the exemption for prosecutor records

A 1991 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling exempted prosecution files from the public records law. In 2005 then-Gov. Jim Doyle, a former state attorney general, announced his support for ending this exemption, but no legislation to accomplish this has been introduced.

Modernization proposals:

1) Ban electronic chatter—emails, text messages and instant messages—by members of deliberative bodies during meetings, if these concern the substance of the issues under discussion. (This would still allow non-substantive and purely personal communications.)

2) Require that when public officials use email or other electronic communication methods to conduct government business, they do so using official government accounts, when available, not personal accounts, to facilitate the archiving of these communications.

3) Establish consistent rules for the retention of electronic communications. Require that all electronic communications involving government business be preserved for public inspection for the same statutory retention period as paper communications—that is, not less than seven years.

4) Establish that record custodians can charge only for the “actual, necessary and direct” cost of reproducing records in electronic form, not the corresponding fees for providing paper records.