Your Right to Know: Let the sunshine in!

In my career as a journalist, I have encountered many public officials who respect government openness and transparency. There was the state records custodian who turned over dozens of her boss’s embarrassing emails after telling him that keeping them secret would violate the law. And the university staffers who pointed me to public information the school tried to keep out of the public eye. And the local elected official who told me what happened in a closed session she thought may have been illegally closed. As we approach this year’s annual celebration of Sunshine Week, March 11-17, it’s worth recalling times when people entrusted with our tax dollars have stood up for our right to know.

Your Right to Know: Citizens have a right to electronic records

Computers have made examining government records easier than ever. The smallest townships across Wisconsin post the meeting agendas and minutes online. And websites for government agencies at all levels contain an enormous amount of other information. Electronic records are also available on request. Say you want to see a skate-park-feasibility study you’ve heard about.

Your Right to Know: Lawmakers should keep promise on transparency

A week after Republicans in the state Legislature voted to gut the public records law in 2015, members of the Assembly sought to quell backlash over the plan. A resolution that passed 96-1 affirms that the Assembly “remains committed to our state’s open record and open government laws and policies, and will take all necessary steps to ensure that these laws and policies are preserved without modification or degradation.”

Fast-forward two-and-a-half years: Has the Assembly kept its promise? Here are some recent events to consider. In November, Assembly Chief Clerk Patrick Fuller and Senate Chief Clerk Jeffrey Renk denied public records requests from multiple news organizations for records of personnel and sexual harassment investigations. Among other reasons for withholding the documents, the clerks claimed disclosure would have a chilling effect on employees’ use of the Legislature’s internal complaint process.

A Top 10 list that’s all Wisconsin

We took a deep dive into our archives to rank the top 10 stories we’ve ever published — a fitting way, we believe, to celebrate the dawn of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s 10th year of operations, which begins this month! These investigative reports provided insights into issues shaping Wisconsin, as residents’ lives were roiled, and sometimes uplifted, by political, social and economic forces. Read the countdown below and be sure to sign up for our newsletter to have the Center’s new reports sent straight to your inbox. 10. State passes up federal disabilities aid for jobless, despite backlogs
By Tegan Wendland, July 14, 2013

In this story, WCIJ found that Wisconsin was forfeiting $14.2 million in federal funds for job training for the disabled, which meant that thousands of people with disabilities faced long waiting lists to access state employment resources. After we reported the story, Gov. Scott Walker reversed his stance and accepted the money, wiping out a waiting list and allowing thousands of people to get to work. 9. Lost signals, disconnected lives

By Mario Koran, March 24, 2013

This investigation explored GPS monitoring of offenders in Wisconsin.

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.