June: Records case a win for public accountability

2023 Columns

When Madison Metropolitan School District communications director Tim LeMonds sued his employer in March to block release of a complaint against him, he claimed there would be grave repercussions if the public were allowed to see the allegations it contained.

Access to the documents, LeMonds’ lawyers argued, would harm the school district’s “ability to effectively function” and “almost certainly subject Mr. LeMonds to unwarranted, unfair and irreversible public ridicule and gossip, negative public perception, and jeopardize his ability to credibly perform his duties as MMSD’s chief public spokesperson.”

At a hearing on May 25, however, Dane County Circuit Judge Rhonda Lanford rejected LeMonds’ claims, instead finding an overriding public interest in access to the complaint.

“There is a significant public interest in the release of documents pertaining to investigations and public employees,” Lanford said. “It’s critical that the public oversee the public body and evaluate the matter in which it fulfills its responsibilities.”

Shortly after the ruling, the school district released the 14-page complaint, which had been signed by seven current and former district employees and alleged that LeMonds engaged in “years of screaming, demoralizing criticism, name-calling, belittling, lying, and intimidation” directed toward employees and local journalists, especially women and people of color.

The complaint alleges that several employees quit their jobs in part because of the experiences with LeMonds, sometimes in large part. “We do not feel Tim LeMonds is fit to work in our department,” the employees wrote.

While the district investigated and concluded there was “insufficient evidence” that LeMonds violated workplace policies, the probe did not cover all aspects of the complaint, and the district in court papers denied that all accusations against LeMonds “were found to be without merit,” as he claimed.

The case is important to the Madison community, but it also has broader consequences for the state. Here’s why.

First, Lanford’s ruling highlights a fundamental value embedded in Wisconsin’s public records law: accountability. Citizens have a right to know what their government is doing beyond just what those in power want to tell them. Courts have repeatedly recognized this monitorial function in the context of employment investigations, concluding that the public has a substantial interest in learning how the government investigates allegations of employment misconduct so it can assess the nature and propriety of the investigation.

As for LeMonds’ concerns about his reputation, a Wisconsin state appeals court has held that high-ranking officials — like LeMonds — should expect “close public scrutiny” and that once an investigation has concluded, “the danger of warrantless harm to reputation is reduced.”

Second, the case is important because of how it arose: by the inquiry of a local journalist.

After WMTV reporter Elizabeth Wadas filed a records request in December that covered the complaint at issue, MMSD followed the law and determined that the record should be released. When LeMonds was informed of this decision, he went to court. Like nearly all litigants who seek to block the release of records using this provision of the law, he lost.

That may be in part because the television station hired lawyers to intervene in the litigation and argue for disclosure of the complaint.

As local news outlets in the United States face budget cuts and closures due to declining revenue, it has become increasingly challenging for local journalists to spend money on litigating records disputes. WMTV’s commitment to its watchdog role is a bright light.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Council Treasurer Jonathan Anderson is a former Wisconsin journalist and current Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota.