In advance of the Nov. 6 elections, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council surveyed candidates for state Assembly and Senate to gauge support for initiatives to require more openness by public officials, including the Legislature. We sent surveys to 204 candidates: 106 Democrats, 84 Republicans and 14 third-party contenders. We received 75 responses from 60 Democrats, eight Republicans and seven third-party candidates, for a 37 percent response rate. Most of the Democrats who responded offered conditional support for many of the ideas.
Perhaps no other political issue receives so little attention, relative to its importance, as open government. Elections come and go without candidates addressing this fundamental tenet of a democratic society. That’s because virtually all candidates, when asked, will say they are big fans of transparency. It’s an easy position to take, a harder one to live up to. But in Wisconsin’s fall elections, fidelity to open government has come up in several races, for governor, attorney general and U.S. Senate.
When the Oconto Police and Fire Commission said in April that it had interviewed two finalists for the open position of chief of police, Kent Tempus of the Oconto County Reporter asked who the finalists were.
It was a simple request, made under the part of Wisconsin’s open records law that requires the naming of final candidates for public offices.
The answer should have been simple, too — but it wasn’t.
A few weeks back, while looking into a court case in Waukesha County, I went to the court’s website seeking contact information. There were a few phone numbers but no email addresses. So I called one of the numbers and asked for the judge’s email address.
One great thing about Wisconsin’s open records law is that it’s not supposed to matter who wants records or why. The law, enacted in 1983, asserts that no state or local government office may deny a request because the person making it “is unwilling to be identified or to state the purpose of the request.”
This is an important principle, because access to public information should not be limited to people whose motives have been deemed pure. In fact, citizens and political parties often use the law to scrutinize public officials and political opponents. That’s how it should be. A few years back, the primary author of Wisconsin’s open records law, former state Sen. Lynn Adelman, now a federal judge, told a group of open government advocates that he was prepared to kill the entire bill rather than accept an amendment that would have removed this ability to make anonymous requests.
When the University of Wisconsin-Madison and UW-Milwaukee released records about sexual misconduct complaints to news organizations last month, they heavily redacted the documents and refused to identify numerous employees who were found to have committed wrongdoing.
Wisconsin’s open government laws were meant to strengthen our democracy by ensuring an informed electorate. But, sometimes, transparency is about more than democracy—it is about human health, with serious consequences when transparency fails. Earlier this year, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the city of Milwaukee had failed to alert thousands of families whose children had blood tests indicating elevated lead levels. Lead from water pipes and old paint is a significant public health risk in Milwaukee and elsewhere, causing cognitive damage and other problems.
It later emerged that officials in Milwaukee had imposed a gag order on health department employees. It barred them from having contacts with elected officials without prior approval.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After 35 years of reporting on government, I’m not sure how much I’ve learned, but I do have some observations. First, most politicians, government officials and staff want to do a good job and faithfully represent their constituents’ interests at city hall, the state Capitol, and in Congress. Second, most probably prefer to not have the public looking over their shoulders. Some honestly (and mistakenly) think their work isn’t the public’s business. Some just don’t want to be bothered.