Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

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November: Good government is everybody’s business

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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. Others have more nefarious reasons, and fear that transparency would reveal something unsavory.

Examples abound: Despite talking a good game, the Obama administration was more secretive than its predecessors, setting a new record for denial of open records requests. The Trump administration could end up being even worse in several respects.

In Wisconsin, the most notorious example was in 2015, when Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) tried, with the help of the Walker administration, to gut the state’s open records law. Gov. Scott Walker has since called for quicker responses to records requests but the jury is still out on that. Attorney General Brad Schimel has been an advocate for open government but his office also has drawn criticism from some records requesters.

The state Supreme Court, which should be the staunchest advocate for citizen access, has instead backed closed government in some instances and has made itself less open to the public.

And from Appleton to Milton to Milwaukee County, local officials have tried to block access to records, met in secret when they had no good reason to do so, and otherwise drawn the curtains.

Third observation: Too often, citizens don’t much care. They’re busy with their own work, families and lives. They don’t want to have to worry about whether the village board met in secrecy over some development or an employee’s misbehavior or whether a reporter or a citizen advocate can access records.

An exception was the opposition to Vos’ attack. It was turned back because thousands of citizens flooded legislators with phone calls and emails, joining news organizations such as the Journal Sentinel and advocacy groups such as the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

Holding government officials and politicians accountable should be everyone’s business, because what they do affects all of us. Whether it’s who gets the contract for that public development or who is influencing state legislators in Madison or representatives in Washington, it matters.

Every day there is a new reason for vigilance. On Oct. 31, an Assembly committee approved a deeply flawed bill, AB 351, that would dramatically restrict the public’s access to videos taken by police body cameras. The bill would block the release of any video that did not involve police use of force, arrest or detention and make it extremely difficult to obtain video from private workplaces or residences, even of encounters that raise issues of undeniable public interest.

This bill merits wide public condemnation and rejection.

Good government is the business of every citizen. What we do can make a difference. So although I’m leaving the platform that the Journal Sentinel has generously given me for 35 years, I’ll still do what I can along with my fellow citizens to keep a light on government.

Politicians should remember: We’ll be watching.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Ernst-Ulrich Franzen recently retired as associate editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 01 November 2017 20:29
 

October: Are officials giving out too much information?

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The nonprofit group I belong to is called the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. Our mission is to protect and expand access to public records.

Usually this entails pushing state and local government officials to be as open as possible. But lately, a number of developments raise a peculiar concern: Are officials being too open?

In June, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in Teague v. Schimel that the state Department of Justice defamed a Milwaukee man by releasing information on offenses committed by a relative who used his name as an alias, without making this clear. The majority felt the agency needed to provide more complete information, in the interest of accuracy. No problem. More information is good.

But litigation has also been brought against public officials for releasing information that is indisputably correct. A woman who accused former UW basketball coach Bo Ryan of misconduct (an internal probe found no wrongdoing) has sued university officials for allegedly revealing her identity, calling this “unreasonable, intentional, reckless, malicious, willful, arbitrary, capricious and/or highly offensive to a reasonable person.” The case is pending in federal court.

And a former Green Bay police officer is suing the city of Green Bay for fulfilling a records request from a newspaper regarding the circumstances of his departure. He says the release violated a confidentiality agreement and caused him embarrassment, monetary losses and emotional harm.

Courts have recognized a strong public interest in knowing more about the individuals who patrol our streets, manage our tax dollars, teach our children, and represent us in government. This interest has been deemed more important than the privacy rights of individual public employees.

Then there are those who want to restrict access to data on the state’s online court records system. They say no one should be able to see that they were charged with a crime if they weren’t convicted; some folks don’t even want people to know if they were. A state committee has recommended reducing the display times for dismissed cases, which would remove thousands of files from the site. That’s a troublesome precedent—responding to a perceived problem by taking information away.

Information compiled by government at taxpayer expense belongs to everyone—even if that is at times unwelcome.

Recently, the state Justice Department began compiling a "snapshot" of pending records requests on its website, updated weekly. It’s even begun posting records released in response to requests of particular public interest.

Such disclosure is painful for reporters who want to protect their ability to break stories. Now their competitors can track what matters they are looking into and potentially obtain key documents the same time as they do. A similar proposal in Scotland was decried as an attack on the press.

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council discussed the Justice Department’s new moves toward transparency at its last meeting and agreed to support the changes, even though it may mean an occasional blown scoop. We stood with our values if not necessarily our interests.

That’s the thing about information: sometimes it hurts. A free society has to accept that.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Bill Lueders, managing editor of The Progressive magazine, is the council’s president.

Last Updated on Monday, 02 October 2017 11:02
 

August: Supreme Court openness rulings a mixed bag

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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.

Those besmirched by the offenses of others argued that lives were negatively affected as a result.

The Supreme Court agreed that Teague had reason to complain that his cousin’s record was released as his. Openness advocates anticipate the ruling will not have a broad impact, because the issues it raised had less to do with transparency in government than allegations that government failed to correct defects in its process.

In Democratic Party of Wisconsin v. Wisconsin Department of Justice, the court ruled that the Department of Justice does not have to release videos of training sessions that it argued would give away sensitive information about law enforcement techniques.

This decision especially disappointed open government advocates because of majority author Justice Rebecca Bradley’s suggestion that the partisan motivation of the requester could be taken into account, contrary to how the law has previously been interpreted. Already, this argument has been invoked in other cases.

In Krueger v. Appleton Area School District, the court determined that a school committee formed to review course materials was a “governmental body” subject to the Wisconsin open meetings law, rejecting arguments to the contrary. It was a major win for openness and accountability.

And then court took a big step backward when it decided to close its own administrative rule meetings, which had previously been public. This result was unexpected and, to open government advocates, dismaying.

In its upcoming term, the court has agreed to hear Madison Teachers Union v. Scott, which stems from a union’s request for state records regarding which members had voted during a union recertification vote. The request was denied on grounds that the union would coerce and intimidate employees during the voting process.

The state Department of Justice cited Justice Bradley’s opinion regarding a requester’s motivation in a brief defending this denial.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. April Barker is the group’s co-vice president. The group filed friend of the court briefs in the cases involving Sheriff Clarke and the Appleton Area School District.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 01 August 2017 13:00
 

September: Officials shouldn’t block social media users

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In an age where major public policies are announced and debated through platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the courts are increasingly barring public officials from limiting people’s access to social media.

In late July, a Virginia judge ruled that public officials do not have the right to block people who disagree with their views from an official Facebook page. A legal challenge also has been brought by people blocked from the president’s @realDonaldTrump Twitter feed.

And in August, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine sued on behalf two residents who claim the governor violated their First Amendment rights by blocking them from posting on his “Paul LePage, Maine’s Governor” Facebook page.

In the Virginia case, resident Brian Davison sued Loudoun County Board Chairwoman Phyllis Randall for blocking access to her Facebook page after he posted allegations that school board members and their families had possible conflicts of interest. The block lasted only a few hours, before Randall reconsidered, but even that was deemed unacceptable.

“Defendant’s actions, while relatively inconsequential as a practical matter, did in fact violate plaintiff’s right of free speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and … the Constitution of Virginia,” wrote Judge James Cacheris for the U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

The judge noted that Randall’s Facebook page listed her official county contact information and that she had asked constituents to use the page to convey their thoughts about county business. It was not, he concluded, “merely a personal website that she may do with as she pleases.”

In the Trump Twitter case filed July 11, eight plaintiffs including the Knight First Amendment Institute alleged that the president violated the Constitution by excluding people who disagree with him from his Twitter feed.

“President Trump’s Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump, has become an important source of news and information about the government, and an important public forum for speech by, to, and about the President,” the suit states.

Tom Kamenick, deputy counsel for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a nonprofit that promotes individual freedom, said experts disagree about whether the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account would fall under the First Amendment.

“Simply because a public official maintains a social media account does not make it an official government account,” said Kamenick, who serves on the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

Whether it is an official account could depend on the account’s name, the types of messages posted on it and whether government resources are used to maintain it, Kamenick said. But if it’s an official account, he said, “the government cannot engage in viewpoint discrimination by blocking users or deleting comments for expressing a particular opinion.”

Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, said that is exactly what is happening with his organization. The group is blocked from the official accounts of Republican state Reps. Jesse Kremer (@repjessekremer), Robin Vos (@repvos) and John Nygren (@rep89) as well as the account of Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, he said.

“They oppose our views and have all blocked us in what we believe is a violation of both the First Amendment and the state's open record laws,” Ross said.

Facebook and Twitter are fast becoming the new town squares. Officials should not be allowed to wall them off.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Dee J. Hall is the council’s secretary and managing editor of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Last Updated on Thursday, 31 August 2017 08:58
 

July: End lawmakers' ability to destroy records

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Not long ago, I asked Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) for records regarding a controversial bill he helped author on free-speech rights at state universities.

I had already obtained some communications between Vos aide Alicia Schweitzer and the Legislative Reference Bureau, from the bill-drafting file. They showed that his office had added bill language calling on UW-System schools to punish "indecent, profane, boisterous (or) obscene" conduct that interfered with others' free speech.

The LRB bill drafter, Mark Kunkel, deleted these terms, saying they were overly broad and ambiguous. But Schweitzer insisted that they be restored. The resulting bill drew flak because of this language, which its lead sponsor agreed likely made it unconstitutional. The language was removed to establish narrower grounds for punishment before the Assembly voted to approve it.

I expected my records request would yield these bill-drafting exchanges, along with any internal communications concerning the office's decision to reject Kunkel's good advice. But no such records were among the unwieldy stack of 659 pages provided for my review.

When I asked why this was so, Vos aide Steve Fawcett explained: "Given that the Assembly is not under the duty to retain records in the normal course of business, it is likely that Alicia simply deleted the document(s) you inquired about prior to your initial request."

Yep. The office of Speaker Vos destroyed revealing records regarding its role in crafting this bill. And, as Fawcett noted, current law allows it. Similar records destruction has happened in other cases, involving other lawmakers.

That's because legislators exempted themselves from the records retention rules in place for every other state and local government employee. If the mayor of Oshkosh receives a complaint about a crack in a sidewalk, he must retain it for at least seven years. But a legislator who gets an email from a lobbyist urging a vote in exchange for a contribution can legally destroy it, absent a pending records request.

A few years back, a Democratic lawmaker introduced legislation to end this exemption. It didn't even get a hearing. The lawmaker believed both the exemption and its elimination were unneeded, since "legislators keep all this stuff anyway."

Now we know this isn't true. Some lawmakers are selectively destroying key records. We should not let them get away with it.

In 2015, lawmakers sneakily added budget language drafted by Vos that would have shut down access to bill drafting files and let lawmakers shield communications with staff, among other things. The bipartisan blowback was enormous, and lawmakers were forced to back down. Now they are using a different law to achieve the same end.

Vos did not respond to an invitation to provide additional information or perspective.

Wisconsin lawmakers should not be destroying records they create and receive in their official, taxpayer-funded capacity. Every legislator and all candidates for this office should be asked, by citizens and the media, whether they will work to end this exemption.

Otherwise, the public should be looking for other representation.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Bill Lueders is the group's president.

Last Updated on Thursday, 29 June 2017 08:36
 
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