As founder of We the Irrelevant, a website that tracks how well (or poorly) the actions of legislators match up with what the public has asked them to do, I have sent multiple open records requests to Wisconsin legislators on a variety of controversial initiatives. Each time, I’ve asked them for related citizen correspondence.
Just shy of two years ago, this column explored the heightened importance of open government when public health is at risk. Multiple examples showed the government was not sharing timely information with the public, or even other branches of government, on issues such as clean drinking water and chronic wasting disease.
Early in his administration, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers was asked to produce a letter he’d gotten from departing Gov. Scott Walker, during the transition. He initially refused, claiming it was a “purely personal” communication outside of the reach of the state’s open records law.
In May, as the state Legislature’s Republican-controlled budget committee considered a plan to spend far less on education than what Democrat Gov. Tony Evers proposed, Sheila Plotkin started filing public records requests.
As Justice Shirley Abrahamson ends her tenure on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, after 43 years and more than 1,300 authored opinions, she leaves a rich legacy of legal scholarship, importantly including her support for government transparency.
Wisconsin’s open records law applies to all records requests, big or small. But under former Attorney General Brad Schimel, the Wisconsin Department of Justice implemented a restrictive policy that limited access based on the number of potentially responsive emails.
When University of Wisconsin-Madison student journalist Peter Coutu investigated frequent lottery winners in Wisconsin in 2018, he uncovered a pattern: The owners and clerks of stores that sell lottery tickets seemed to have more luck than normal.
Wisconsin legislators are looking to reform current law governing the expungement of criminal records. Among other things, SB-39 would allow those convicted of crimes for which the maximum term of imprisonment is six years or less (including some felonies) to ask a judge to expunge their convictions even if they fail to do so at the time of sentencing, as is currently required. It would also allow those older than age 25 at the time of an offense to request expungement, and expressly provide that an expunged record cannot be considered a conviction for purposes of employment. The standard under present law would be carried forward, which lets judges grant expungement if they determine “that the person will benefit and society will not be harmed.”
The rationale for the bill, which has broad bipartisan support, is to give those who have made minor mistakes a fresh start, including supposedly enhanced employment opportunities. It is one of several current proposals to expand the availability of expungement.
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.