Your Right to Know: Many school districts fail test on records

State law makes nearly all governmental records open to inspection and copying, and requires custodians to release records “as soon as possible and without delay.”

So how are they doing? Recently, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty conducted an experiment to see how well school districts are complying with the state’s Open Records Law. We asked the state’s 20 largest school districts for records from the last two years relating to their compliance procedures and how quickly they fulfilled requests. The results were tabulated in a recent report. Here are some highlights:

The good: Of the 12 school districts that fulfilled our request without charging a fee, six of them (Appleton, Green Bay, Janesville, Racine, Waukesha and West Allis-West Milwaukee) reported response times, on average, of 10 business days or fewer.

Your Right to Know: Supreme Court openness rulings a mixed bag

As befits a year in which anything, it seems, can happen, the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s public records docket this term was marked by atypical cases. In Voces de la Frontera v. Clarke, the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department redacted information from immigration detainer forms provided in response to public records requests, asserting that a federal immigration regulation required the redactions. A Milwaukee County judge and the Wisconsin Court of Appeals concluded that federal law did not require the redactions, but the Supreme Court disagreed. Open government advocates were disappointed that the Supreme Court’s opinion focused almost exclusively on this interpretation of federal law, not the presumptions of openness enshrined in Wisconsin statutes. In Teague v. Schimel, the court looked at whether the Wisconsin Department of Justice violated individuals’ rights by releasing background check materials that sometimes reflected the criminal records of other individuals with the same names and birthdates or that had been used as aliases.

Your Right to Know: Lawmakers abuse budget-fix motion

It’s been nearly two years since Republicans in the state Legislature tried to use a secretive, last-minute measure just before the July 4 holiday weekend to gut Wisconsin’s open records law. This effort, once publicized, was met with public outrage and abandoned. This was the most egregious but by no means only example of lawmakers trying to slip bad ideas into the state budget bill in the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, under what is known as a 999 motion. As lawmakers prepare to wrap up the 2017-19 state budget by July 1, the 999 motion remains a serious threat to open government and the public interest. Originally intended to address technical issues and correct problems in the budget bill before it goes to the full Legislature, 999 motions have increasingly been used by both parties as a hiding spot for pet projects.

Your Right to Know: Walker’s order on records is welcome

In March, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker issued an executive order directing state agencies to track and post their open record request response times and giving procedural guidance that should make it easier for citizens to request and receive records.

Wisconsin’s ‘news deserts’ hurt our democracy — but you can help

News deserts are geographical areas or socioeconomic groups that are parched of fresh, important local news, whether it’s a result of the shuttering of neighborhood newspapers, downsizing and the limited resources of news outlets or a lack of coverage of particular topics. Help WCIJ identify news deserts in Wisconsin by writing to me at msato@wisconsinwatch.org.

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council names ‘Opee’ winners

Two citizens, two journalists, one fired government worker and one small but gutsy Wisconsin newspaper are among the recipients of the 2016-17 Openness Awards, or Opees, bestowed annually by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. The awards, announced in advance of national Sunshine Week (sunshineweek.org), March 12-18, recognize extraordinary achievement in the cause of open government.