Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

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December: Open the door to open data

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Scott Resnick, a former Madison alderperson, is proud of the work he’s done to advance the cause of open data. In 2012, the city enacted what he says was only the second open data ordinance in the country.

Open data is the practice of releasing huge quantities of public information in electronic form so it can be put to other public purposes. Governments, citizens, companies or others may then discover ways to use the data to create technological applications or to identify public issues that should be addressed.

While the concept sounds tech-heavy, the potential applications of open data span any number of real-world applications. For example, in Madison, Resnick says, a “bus radar” application designed by a university student allows would-be riders to track the location of a bus in real time, making it easier to avoid missing the bus.

The city of Madison’s open data initiative also led to development of an “adopt a fire hydrant” app that encourages citizens to locate and shovel out fire hydrants nearest them, Resnick says.

Nationally, the open data movement has increased access to geographic and weather data. Another “hot topic” in open data, Resnick says, is tracking police-related shootings and ensuring that data is standardized so that meaningful comparisons can be made.

Open data is popular among a new generation of virtual volunteers, including what Resnick refers to as “civic hacking groups.” Businesses are also prolific users. Resnick, who serves as chief operating officer of a private company, sees both as “a worthy use of government resources.”

Some companies use the data to improve public health, Resnick adds, noting that a private California-based company has developed an application that works with local fire departments to locate the nearest hospital for individuals in need of CPR. While the company is for-profit, Resnick notes, “their goal is to save lives.”

And while some companies may offer services derived from open data for a charge, Resnick says that when those companies compete with others who offer the services for free, “almost always, the free one has won out.”

Critics complain that open data only showcases data that government agencies choose to share, not more controversial records and information. But Resnick calls open data a “first step” that reinforces positive attitudes within government toward publicly releasing data. (He stresses that government should be careful to consider individuals’ privacy when releasing data.)

Other Wisconsin communities, including Milwaukee, are taking steps toward open data initiatives, and there is in interest on the state level, Resnick says. Many other states have legislation promoting open data.

With so much broad-based support for open data, those who seek to promote transparency in government need to be part of the conversation as it moves forward.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. April Barker, the Council’s co-vice president, is an attorney with Schott, Bublitz & Engel of Brookfield.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 01 December 2015 09:53

November: Bill would make it harder to follow the money

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Follow the money. That’s one of the key lessons in politics, right?

Follow the money and you’ll find answers. Follow the money and you’ll see who’s influencing whom.

Follow the money and you’ll be able to connect special interest donors to the legislators whose votes can benefit them.

But it might be about to get tougher—a lot tougher—to follow the money in Wisconsin politics.

On Oct. 15, a state Assembly committee passed an amendment to a campaign finance bill to end the requirement that donors to candidates for state office list their primary employer, as is now required for those who give more than $100 in any given year. (Under the bill, donors of more than $200 per year would still have to list their occupation.)

The amendment, authored by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, was introduced and passed on the same day, without a public hearing.

The bill itself was introduced just the week before; it passed the Assembly on Oct. 21. It would double the amounts that donors can give to candidates, and adjust these for inflation every five years. It would let donors give unlimited amounts to political parties and legislative campaign committees, while letting candidates coordinate with special-interest groups that don’t expressly advocate for or against a candidate.

Good-government groups and their supporters have blasted those changes. But eliminating the employer-disclosure rule is also a blow against state laws that presume openness in government.

The nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign compiles a database of campaign donations, including donors’ employers. It’s an effective way to track trends in donations from employees of a particular business or industry to a candidate or party—that is, to follow the money.

Eliminating the requirement that donors say where they work will make it harder for “every good-government group and the media, as well as the public at large, to figure out who is really going to benefit from pieces of legislation,” said Matthew Rothschild, the WDC’s executive director. He notes that, while donors would still have to list their occupation, descriptions of “attorney” or “executive” are so broad they hardly provide true disclosure.

Vos and other supporters of the provision have said it’s needed to protect donors’ privacy and shield their businesses from boycotts if it’s discovered that employees have made contributions to a candidate. Rothschild rejects this reasoning: “If they’re going to be giving scads of money to politicians, they should face the music for doing that.”

The disclosure requirement also helped in the investigation and prosecution of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co. chief executive William Gardner, who in 2011 pleaded guilty to two felony charges in connection with donations made by his employees. Prosecutors said Gardner used the employees to make contributions above the legal limits.

Without employer information, in the future those dots might remain unconnected.

Though the bill was on a fast track through the Assembly and has passed a Senate committee, there are signs that it may not pass the Senate without changes.

That means there’s time for members of the public to let legislators know they won’t stand for government moving further into the darkness.

To protect the public interest, we need enough light to follow the money.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Council member Larry Gallup is Gannett Wisconsin Media’s audience analyst and the former opinion editor at the Post-Crescent in Appleton.

Last Updated on Monday, 26 October 2015 07:18

October: Back open government? Prove it!

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On July 9, the members of the Wisconsin state Assembly collectively affirmed their support for open government.

They passed a resolution stating 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.” They vowed to “continue to work to uphold these principles and protections.”

The vote was 96 to one. The lone holdout, Rep. Scott Allen, R-Waukesha, wasn’t taking a stand against open government but, in his mind, for it. He said he was “gravely disappointed” in his Republican colleagues’ attempt, the week before, to gut the open records law, but also in Democrats for “highjacking” the process with a hastily added agenda item. Fair enough.

Less comprehensible are the pro-resolution votes cast by some of Allen’s colleagues, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. It was Vos who asked for the changes that would have shut down public access to critical records produced by the Legislature and other units of government.

And, after the public backlash forced lawmakers to back down, Vos ordered the drafting of a bill to let the Legislature set its own rules regarding records access. (By the way, Vos’ role in these efforts came to light through the release of records that his original plan would have declared off-limits.)

The resolution was also backed by the five Assembly Republicans—Dale Kooyenga, Amy Loudenbeck, Dean Knudson, Michael Schraa and Mary Czaja—who as members of the Joint Finance Committee voted to add the provisions gutting the records law to the state budget after listening to their Democratic colleagues argue passionately against this.

Some Democratic lawmakers have proposed a constitutional amendment to protect the open records and meetings laws from further attacks. But how about actually making government in Wisconsin more transparent?

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council recently updated its “Legislative Wish List” of ideas for building on, as opposed to tearing down, the state’s tradition of open government.

For instance, Wisconsin could follow the lead of other states and require that when public bodies go into closed session, they make a recording, subject to judicial review if the decision to meet in secret is challenged.

The council also calls for an increase in the amount after which requesters can be charged for the cost of locating records. It was set at $50 in 1981, which if adjusted for inflation would top $125 today. Raising this threshold would likely lead to records being stored in more sensible ways, instead of charging requesters for inefficiencies.

And lawmakers could and should follow the same records retention rules as other state and local officials and stop meeting in secret with other members of their party to make key decisions.

Finally, why not bar any legislative proposal from being introduced without a clearly identified sponsor? That way, the next time some lawmaker tries to gut the open records law, it won’t be necessary to make a records request to learn who it is.

Declaring support for open government is nice, but it’s not enough. If state lawmakers want to prove they are not simply covering their butts and trying to score political points, they need to take steps in the direction of greater transparency.

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

Last Updated on Thursday, 01 October 2015 11:49

Action Alert on Bill to Shield Information on Campaign Donors

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The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is issuing an Action Alert on proposed legislation to end the requirement that donors to political candidates or committees identify their principal employer. The proposal was introduced Oct. 15 by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos as an amendment to AB387, a bill to rewrite state campaign finance laws, and promptly approved by a state legislative committee, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report.

We believe this legislation is unneeded, and that it would represent a retreat from the state's traditions of openness, contrary to the express recent declaration of lawmakers. It would complicate the task of tracking down donations by particular interest groups, and increase the possibility that donors will be misidentified.

Previous legislative attempts to eliminate this reporting requirement, including SB292 in the 2011-2012 session, were unsuccessful after drawing opposition from advocates of open and accountable government.

Proponents have argued that it is necessary to shield the names of employers to prevent them from being targeted or harassed. Besides a dearth of examples, this argument fails because this bill would do nothing to prevent this from occurring. Major donors could still, with a bit more work, be associated with particular employers, especially in cases where they are officers of these companies.

There are many legitimate uses of this information. For instance, it is used by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and others to link campaign donors into interest groups.

The provision would make it harder to track the affiliations of multiple contributors, undercutting one of the few tools available to the public to associate donations with interest groups. And the Government Accountability Board has said access to this information was helpful when it investigated allegations that Bill Gardner of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad used his employees to make contributions in excess of legal limits. Mr. Gardner was convicted of two felonies in connection with these donations.

Finally, having access to employer information makes it less likely that a given donor will be mistaken for someone else. While it appears that
donors who give more than $200 must report their occupation, there are multiple instances in which different donors have the same name and occupation, such as "attorney."

On July 9, the state Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution stating that it "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."

AB387, as amended, clearly violates this stated intent and should be widely opposed, in the brief period of time before it is likely to be voted on. The Council encourages its members to report and editorialize on this topic, providing additional examples about how having access to this information has served the public interest.

Last Updated on Friday, 16 October 2015 11:25

September: Court loss could prove costly

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Newspapers are usually reluctant to go to court. But sometimes we must, to protect our ability to report the facts readers need to assess the performance of their elected officials.

That was the case in February 2012, when Racine’s Police and Fire Commission was picking a new city police chief. The search had narrowed to three—two internal candidates who were minorities and one external candidate who was white—when the outside candidate removed his name from consideration.

Instead of continuing the selection process with the internal candidates, the PFC, in a closed session, decided to reopen its search.

That caused an uproar, particularly in the city’s minority community. And so my paper, the Racine Journal Times, asked the PFC who had made the motion to reopen the search, who seconded it, and how the five-member board voted.

Under state Open Meetings law, the board was required to record its votes, even those made in closed session. Under state Open Records law, it must divulge any record of those votes.

But the PFC denied our request for this record, twice, saying it had conducted a “balancing test” under the open records law and concluded that the potential harm from disclosure outweighed the good. Specifically, it said commission members feared for their safety if the vote was released, although it cited no threats or other indication of any imminent harm.

By that standard, any vote could be kept secret because an elected official feared the reaction.

The PFC offered a “compromise,” saying it would give us the record—but only after it had picked a new chief. We thought the community deserved to know the vote before the new chief was selected, so, reluctantly, we went to court to get that information. And that opened a labyrinth of legal complexities, as court cases sometimes do.

In the end, the PFC admitted it had not recorded its vote, though it was required to do so. Had the newspaper known there was no record of the vote, it could have urged prosecution of the PFC for violating the open meetings law.

A local court held that the PFC couldn’t be compelled to release a record that didn’t exist. The ruling was overturned on appeal but then accepted for review by the state Supreme Court. The paper’s position was backed by the state attorney general, who urged the high court to hold that a government body must reveal when a record does not exist.

But in June, the state Supreme Court rejected the paper’s position, with Justice Annette Ziegler writing that the commission responded with “reasonable diligence.” Justice Shirley Abrahamson, while agreeing that the paper was not entitled to recover its legal fees, argued that custodians should promptly notify requesters when a record does not exist.

Sadly, the court ruling will allow other custodians to get around the requirements of the law by failing to reveal when a record does not exist. (There is evidence that this is already happening.) And it will encourage other government bodies to delay the release of information or put the timing of that release beyond when the information is relevant to the community.

We lost in court. Unfortunately, the citizens of Wisconsin are now saddled with a court ruling that allows government to hide its actions.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Council member Steve Lovejoy, editor emeritus of The Journal Times, Racine, was a party to the lawsuit.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 01 September 2015 14:03
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