June: Gov rivals imperfect on open records

2012 Columns

Advocates of open government often quiz candidates for public office on their level of support for official transparency. The candidates, when asked, always tout their commitment.

That doesn’t mean they always deliver.

Both Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, have fielded many requests for public records. Indeed, since becoming governor, the Appleton Post-Crescent reported, Walker has seen “an explosion of requests.”

In my opinion — and I say this as someone who has successfully sued Walker over his failure to release records — the governor’s office has by and large done a good job in responding to this high volume of requests. Even in the lawsuit, his office negotiated a fair settlement in good faith.

But Walker’s record on openness is mixed. It includes allegations that, when Walker was Milwaukee County executive, his staff maintained a secret communication system so employees could do illegal campaign work on public time. Walker has denied knowing about this.

Another troublesome episode was reported at the time but has since gotten scant attention. It concerns Walker’s handling, as county executive, of a 2004 request from the campaign of his electoral challenger, David Riemer.

The request from campaign consultant Bill Christofferson sought the pension waivers signed by county employees, as Walker had promised his appointees would do. It later came to light that, after receiving the request, Walker’s office gathered 15 additional signatures before releasing an updated list.

Riemer filed a complaint, and the matter was investigated by the state Attorney General’s office, charged with interpreting and enforcing the state’s open records law. In 2005 the office sent Walker a scathing letter, calling what occurred “troubling,” “deceptive” and an example “of how government officials ought not do business.”

While the AG’s office opted against prosecution, it told Walker “Nobody honored to serve in public office ought to manipulate public records in this fashion.”

At the time, Walker dismissed the letter as a politically motivated attack by the AG’s office, then led by Democrat Peg Lautenschlager.

Christofferson, a longtime Democratic operative, disagrees.

“What they did is really despicable,” he says. “What we asked for is what existed at the time. What we got was something Walker cobbled together by going around and getting more people to sign those waivers.”

And while Barrett has earned praise from openness advocates for defending a news photographer arrested last fall by Milwaukee police, the files of the AG’s office contain a complaint against him.

In July 2008, Orville Seymer of Citizens for Responsible Government, a Milwaukee-based activist group, asked the AG’s office for help in getting records from Barrett. Seymer included copies of four firm but polite request letters sent over a five-and-a-half month period for one set of records, before they were provided. Other requests, he stated, were still pending.

The AG’s office, then as now led by Republican J.B. Van Hollen, declined to conclude that this was too long. While the law requires a response “as soon as practicable and without delay,” the office said “what constitutes a reasonable time for a response to a specific request depends on the nature of the request … and related considerations.”

Seymer, a prodigious user of the state’s open records law, is disappointed in the AG’s response, but mostly blames Barrett. “The compliance of the mayor was absolutely miserable,” Seymer says. “Virtually every other office I’ve dealt with provides records in a more timely fashion.”

It’s likely Barrett, if asked, would agree that “whenever we get around to it” is not an appropriate timeline for responding to records requests. But this is part of his own imperfect record.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Bill Lueders, a reporter at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, is the group’s president.