January: Lautenschlager champions open government

2005 Columns

Last spring, the newspaper I work for had a problem obtaining some public records from our local school district. Officials there demanded that we first send a check for $613.08 to cover the costs they expected to incur reviewing the records and deciding what information to black out.

These costs put the records effectively beyond our reach. Worse, I knew from my involvement with the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council that this was part of a much larger problem. Throughout the state, records custodians were seizing on some loose language in a 2002 Supreme Court case to justify charging exorbitant fees designed to thwart records requests.

I asked state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager for an opinion on this practice. Her office reviewed the matter and in short order issued an unequivocal opinion stating that Open Records Law does not permit such costs to be imposed. Custodians may charge only for copies and in some cases for the cost of locating records.

It was a major win for the cause of openness in Wisconsin, one of many on which Lautenschlager has played a role. Indeed, in my opinion, no one in Wisconsin has done more to preserve the public’s right to know.

Soon after taking office in 2003, Lautenschlager followed through on her pledge to create a “Public Integrity Unit” to investigate and prosecute misconduct by public officials. Part of this mission involves enforcing the state’s Open Records and Open Meetings Laws.

Lautenschlager’s first foray into this arena sent an especially powerful message. In October 2003, the Attorney General found that the UW Board of Regents had violated the Open Meetings Law when it held a poorly noticed teleconference call to hike the salaries of UW officials. Her office even prepared a criminal complaint, withdrawn after the Regents agreed to a settlement that included rescinding the pay raises.

Shortly thereafter, Lautenschlager’s office began a series of seminars to educate public officials and others of their obligations under the Open Records and Open Meetings Laws. These seminars, which continue today, have helped improve compliance and avoid the need for prosecutions.

While government officials often prefer to err on the side of secrecy, the state’s Open Records Law and Open Meetings Law contain explicit presumptions of openness. Lautenschlager, to her credit, has come down firmly on the side of openness in positions taken by her office with regard to public disputes. Here’s a few from 2004:

In March, Lautenschlager warned the mayor of Lake Geneva that his city council’s practice of giving advance notice of meeting topics under vague headings like “Staff Comments” was, at best, “on the outer edge of lawful practice.” She urged that topics be more specifically referenced.

In July, Lautenschlager sued the Beaver Dam Area Development Corporation over its failure to comply with the Open Records and Open Meetings Law on grounds that it is a quasi-governmental corporation. A government agency, she noted in a press release, “cannot spin off a private entity…then consider itself above the state laws that ensure the public has open access to the public’s business.” That case is still pending.

In August, Lautenschlager sued the city of Rhinelander over its refusal to release details of its settlement with an insurance company regarding a landfill cleanup. The following month, the city revealed that it had been paid $865,000 to settle the matter—an astounding thing to try to keep secret. “This will set a precedent and offer help to other Wisconsin communities dealing with similar situations,” noted Jay Anderle, the publisher of the Rhinelander Daily News, who made the original request.

And in September, Lautenschlager agreed with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the Cedarburg school district needed to release any notices of claim – the first step in a lawsuit – against a high school basketball coach. “It has been the longstanding practice of this Department to produce notices of claims when a request is made pursuant to this state’s Open Records Law,” she wrote.

Defending Wisconsin’s tradition of open government is far from being Peg Lautenschlager’s only important responsibility. But it is refreshing that it is one she takes seriously. For that, she deserves all of our thanks.

Bill Lueders is news editor of Isthmus newspaper and acting president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, devoted to protecting public access to meetings and records.