The behavior of public employees on the job is subject to public scrutiny in nearly every circumstance under Wisconsin law. That means the public has a right to see disciplinary records of all employees. The right doesn’t just apply to the records of elected or appointed officials. It doesn’t just apply to managers or supervisors. It applies to all public employees.
They say what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, but when it comes to public records, the state Legislature doesn’t seem to believe in this principle. In Wisconsin, cities, police and fire departments, state agencies, and even the governor’s office are required to retain public records and make these available to the public. For example, emails generated by staff in the Department of Justice must be retained for three years from the date of creation and then transferred to the Wisconsin Historical Society or UW-Madison archives. For most of our state’s history, these rules also applied to those who wrote the laws. But decades ago, when it wrote the law, the Legislature decided to exempt itself from having to retain most records.
Secrecy in government, compounded by court-ordered secrecy, gives rise to speculation and rumor. That never serves the public interest. A case involving Racine City Attorney Scott Letteney and Racine Alderperson Sandy Weidner illustrates that very well. Last August, the city attorney sought an ethics violation sanction against the alderperson for sharing allegedly confidential communications from his office with constituents. Letteney called for a closed meeting of the executive committee of the city council, at which he presented a PowerPoint of about 30 slides, mostly emails from Weidner to constituents.
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.