June: Attorney general’s office plays vital openness role

2009 Columns

A few times each month, the office of Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen sends me batches of e-mails containing its responses to citizens and public officials who write it seeking guidance on open government issues.

The state’s open records and open meeting laws specifically state that “any person” may ask the office for advice on any aspect of these complicated laws.

No statute requires Van Hollen’s office – a.k.a. the state Justice Department – to respond. But it does, usually thoughtfully and thoroughly, no matter whether the requester is a local elected official or (rarely) a prison inmate.

A couple years back I made an open records request for these responses and was stunned by the volume – well more than 100 a year. Since then, the office has passed these on to me as a matter of course, and I pass them on to others. I remain stunned by the volume.

But that’s just part of it. The five Justice Department attorneys who write these letters also field about 500 phone inquiries a year. The advice they give improves voluntary compliance with the state’s openness laws and minimizes the need to litigate matters in dispute.

These attorneys also engage in extensive outreach. For the last two years, Van Hollen has continued a tradition begun under former Attorney General Jim Doyle of holding free seminars on the public records and open meetings laws at locations around the state.

Last fall this road show, attended mainly by local officials, hit five cities and drew a total of 764 registrants. Plus the office gives tutorials to specialized groups – prosecutors, coroners, corporation counsels, registers in probate.

In addition, the office continually updates and distributes printed copies of its invaluable compliance guides (also available at www.doj.state.wi.us). And it periodically devotes significant staff resources to thorny issues like how federal driver privacy protection laws affect the availability of accident report information.

“The Department of Justice has a very important role to play in overseeing compliance of open government laws,” says spokesman Kevin St. John. “We try to be proactive when it comes to training and conferences.”

But St. John notes, rightly I think, that some of these functions would be more difficult if the office is obliged to get by with less, as is periodically proposed. It would force the department, he says, to “go through a checklist” of things it must do, as opposed to the “good and productive things” it does because it can.

Discretionary tasks like responding to requests for clarification and training sessions would fall into the latter category, of things that would likely be “limited or eliminated.”

The state Legislature, responding to a concerted push from Van Hollen and crew, has moved to rescind a 5% across-the-board budget cut proposed for the AG’s office. But the fact that it was put on the table shows the need for education about the office’s role with regard to open government.

The Justice Department’s record on these issues is not perfect. I could and in fact will quarrel with its aversion to initiating enforcement actions, even in cases where it feels there’s been a lack of compliance.

(The office usually says either that it can’t take on purely local issues or that it has a conflict because state agencies are involved.)

But I do accept that this is done in part out of a desire to use limited resources wisely, and with regard to the state’s openness laws, J.B. Van Hollen’s office has certainly done that.

Whatever happens to its budget, the state Justice Department should make continued vigilance of Wisconsin’s traditions of open government a priority.

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