January 15, 2015

Meeting minutes

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council
Capital Newspapers Auditorium
Minutes of the Jan. 15, 2015 meeting

1) Call to order. The meeting was called to order at 1:32 p.m. In attendance were Dee Hall, Bob Dreps, Dustin Brown, John Foust, David Haynes, Ernst-Ulrich Franzen, Orville Seymer, Michael Buelow, Holly Henschen, Michelle Vetterkind, Larry Gallup, Julia Hunter, Beth Bennett, Mark Pitsch, Bob Drechsel, Bill Lueders, Dave Zweifel, Andy Hall, April Barker and Christa Westerberg (by speakerphone).

2) Approval of minutes. Minutes from the Oct. 9, 2014 meeting were approved.

3) Treasurer’s report: Drechsel reported that dues statements for the organizations will be coming out soon. D. Hall reminded everyone that voluntary $50 payments from members also could be made. Drechsel reported that Tom Bier had donated $100.

4) President’s report:

a) Lueders reported on his attendance at the National FOIC meeting in St. Petersburg, Fla. He discussed ways to broaden the council’s focus by involving more non-media representatives. He noted ways that other state groups raise more funds, like through fees collected by state newspaper and broadcasters associations. He said there is about $400,000 available from the national organization for litigation, not counting attorney costs. SPJ is looking to set up a fund for attorneys’ fees. He notes that one participant touted the value of litigation to clarify the FOI laws.

b) Lueders and members of the executive committee planned to meet with newly elected AG Brad Schimel on Jan. 21 to discuss Wis FOIC’s “Legislative wish list” and other issues. 

c) Lueders discussed National Sunshine Week March 15-21. Pitsch mentioned SPJ planned to have a related event on Next Door Brewing March 16.

d) Lueders said outgoing AG J.B. Van Hollen had issued some opinion letters on some thorny issues, years after requests were made. One found that “public officials” had to be notified more often than regular government employees about the release of certain kinds of records concerning  them. Van Hollen also found court clerks cannot charge when requesters make their own copies but can set a policy banning self-made copies. Dreps said the opinion will likely apply to other records custodians, some of whom are happy to let requesters make their own copies.

5) Invitation to join OpenTheGovernment.org. Lueders said the group appears to be nonpartisan. The council agreed to join.

6) Opee Awards. Council members discussed possible nominees for the annual awards for openness in government.

7) Legislative update. Lueders suggested everyone set up legislative notifications for open records and open meetings bills. Issues of note: Congress failed to pass an improved national FOI law. The state Legislature will likely again try to remove records from CCAP in cases in which the person is not found guilty. There will also likely to a bill to broaden the availability of  expungement. Bennett said the Supreme Court also is looking at placing more records under seal.

8) Legal update. The John Doe records case by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press ends after the federal appeals court dismisses John Doe challenge. Dreps discussed the Racine Journal Times case involving whether the Police and Fire Commission must release a record of its closed door meetings. After initially saying it was withholding the record, the commission later stated it did not have any records related to the request, and the lawsuit was dismissed. The newspaper sued to recover attorney costs, and the Court of Appeals ordered the commission to pay them. Dreps said the matter is headed to the state Supreme Court. In another pending case, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the state for records related to the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance’s policy not to enforce federal law requiring insurers to offer contraception coverage. The council also discussed two defamation cases in which news organizations prevailed. Bennett reported that the negotiated compromise over redacting drivers’ names on police documents appears to be working.

9) Issue for discussion: Lueders said there have been three recent instances in which the media were initially denied access to records but custodians reversed when threatened with a lawsuit. Pitsch said it seems harder than 10 years ago to get “straightforward” information from the government. Haynes said the problem is there are fewer reporters to push compliance with the laws.

10) Issue: Could FOIC help create a First Amendment or Freedom of Information Center, possibly grant-funded and university based? Lueders said some centers are affiliated with law schools such as Yale and Michigan State. Drechsel said there is one at the University of Florida-Gainesville. A. Hall and Bennett suggested creating an entity for legal advocacy. Bennett said the state also could have an “access advocacy” office, which she helped create in Illinois 6-8 years ago. Another suggestion is to have someone with a “firewall” within the AGs office, a formal office vested with some authority to litigate and issue binding opinions.

11) Issue: Data governance, the next frontier? Lueders said speakers at the national FOIC conference said advocates should create an expectation that “mega-databanks” are available and usable by the public. Foust said the issue is called “data governance,” determining who should have access to what information and how secure the information is from manipulation. He said governments create policies to ensure data is not lost. He said currently IT consultants usually set the parameters in government. Drechsel said some agencies do not consider data to be “a record” and yet that may be the way the information is kept. A. Hall noted that DNR has some databases the media have a hard time accessing because they use proprietary software. Dreps said it’s critical to design systems that can easily generate public information without inordinate expense.

12) The council discussed the prevalence of secrecy in real-estate deals. One reporter at a school board was ordered to turn off his recorder by the board’s attorney during a meeting. Franzen discussed his new “On Wisconsin” column that will deal with open-government issues. Ideas can be sent to efranzen@jrn.com.

13) Website report. Lueders thanked Foust for his timely posting of items on the website.

14) Council membership. Lueders introduced Larry Gallup of Gannett Wisconsin Media based in Appleton. The council agreed to add Gallup as a member.

15) Your Right to Know column. Ideas for the February, March and April columns were discussed.

16) Other business. A. Hall discussed the upcoming April 8-9 Midwest Watchdog Workshop at the UW-Madison for journalists, students and the public. He thanked the council for its sponsorship. A. Hall also noted the annual Wisconsin Watchdog Awards banquet would be April 8. Drechsel also mentioned the April 10 annual journalism ethics conference on the topic “Ethics in Sports,” also at UW-Madison. Members also set the next council meeting for Thursday, April 23, at 1:30 p.m.

17) Adjournment. The meeting adjourned at 3:27 p.m.