Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

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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
 

August: Democracy demands open government

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On July 2, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee unleashed a shocking assault on the state’s long and proud tradition of open government.

It happened at night, on the eve of a holiday weekend, just a few hours after the proposal was first unveiled. No one has taken credit for it. Committee co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, literally walked away from a reporter asking whose idea it was.

The committee’s cowardly action, which passed on a 12-4 party line vote with Republicans in the majority, was part of an omnibus motion stuck into the state budget. It will effectively end the Legislature’s need to comply with the state’s Open Records Law.

The changes exempt legislative communications from the law; shield from release all “deliberative materials” created for the purpose of making law or public policy (including opinions, analyses and briefings prepared at public expense); shut down public access to all records created in the process of drafting legislation; and specify that the Legislature can freely exempt any record from disclosure simply by passing a rule or policy.

These radical and sweeping changes represent a full-frontal attack on Wisconsin’s history of open government. They are clearly intended to block the public from discovering what factors drive the official actions of government, especially the Legislature, and will inevitably lead to abuse, malfeasance and corruption.

Should they become law, these changes would free the Legislature of the obligations of transparency in place for all other state and local governmental agencies. They will spare lawmakers from the burden of accountability to the people who elect them and pay their salaries. They will shield from public view the collusions of lawmakers with special interest groups, lobbyists and campaign donors.

In one 2014 case, bill drafting records exposed the involvement of a wealthy campaign donor in drafting a bill that would have reduced his own child-support obligation. The changes inserted into the budget bill would keep these records secret.

Bill drafting records have long been understood to be public records, and are now routinely posted online. The change inserted into the budget would make release of these records illegal.

In addition, the omnibus bill cuts away at public access to information about criminal charges in the state’s online court records system. It would allow charges filed against some individuals to “disappear” from this archive. While not as sweeping as some past failed efforts to remove records from this system, it is being done with virtually no public discussion.

The records these changes would seal off have, on countless past occasions, been used to expose wrongdoing and provide essential information on the workings of government. We should be pointing this out, as well as reminding people of the very strong proclamations in favor of transparency that have been made by our elected officials, including Gov. Scott Walker, who as a candidate said that the state Legislature needs to be more transparent.

And all of these changes are strictly policy matters, which have absolutely no business being part of a budget bill.

The people of Wisconsin need to rise in opposition to this attack on our state’s tradition of open and honest government. The future integrity of our state depends on it.

Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel noted the danger of tinkering with transparency at the summit he convened July 29 on open government. “Messing with open government laws is like touching the third rail,” Schimel said. “I think that lesson has been learned recently.”

The folks now running Madison got their hands burned while taking an ax to the trunk of our open records law, because the good people of Wisconsin—Republicans, Democrats and neither—rose up. The proposed changes were quickly pulled over the Independence Day weekend, and members of the public demanded to know who was responsible.

We’ve since learned more, thanks to our open records law. On the same day Schimel held his open government summit, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on a new batch of emails.

They show that it was Gov. Scott Walker and staff who added language exempting “deliberative process” documents from disclosure. This would have let elected representatives—and bureaucrats—bury records revealing lobbying, opinions, analyses, recommendations and negotiations that precede a decision.

They also show that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and staff sought language to grant lawmakers broad new privileges to hide legislative documents, even when sued, and to ban their staffs from discussing issues even after leaving their jobs. No other state provides such an expansive legal privilege.

These restrictions would have applied not only to the governor and Legislature, but also to town, village, city and county boards and state and local agencies — to anyone in government worried that something in the records could bring a bit of embarrassment, an objection, a call for improvement.

No one had a whiff of what Walker, Vos and other party leaders were planning to do to the open records law until they stuck it into the state budget, at the last minute, just before a holiday weekend. We now know they had been working in secret on the changes for weeks, if not months.

The released records show that a Legislative Reference Bureau lawyer was researching legislative privilege language last September. Vos had the drafts written on special legislative privilege sometime before June 15. By then, Walker’s language to hide all “deliberative” records had been added.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Joint Finance Committee Co-Chairs Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) and Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) helped advance the changes. Ten additional Republican lawmakers voted them into the final draft of the budget bill that was meant to be quickly approved by the Senate and Assembly, then sent for the governor’s signature.

When the public roared against limiting records access, Walker said it “didn’t come from us.”

He is still refusing to release some records regarding his unpopular proposed changes to the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin, which he blamed on a drafting error. He is using the same language he tried and failed to insert into state law, saying he doesn’t have to release records made during deliberation of the proposed changes.

Two Republican lawyers agreed at Schimel’s summit that our open records law doesn't exempt those records from disclosure: Raymond Taffora, former chief counsel to Gov. Tommy Thompson and a top deputy to Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen; and Rick Esenberg, president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

The move appears no more than an attempt to avoid “political embarrassment,” Esenberg said.

This is not a partisan issue. The people of Wisconsin want open, honest government.

It is not too much to ask.

George Stanley ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ) is the editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 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.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 01 September 2015 13:53
 

Action Alert on Legislature's Attack on Open Records Law

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The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is issuing an emergency action alert in response to the Joint Finance Committee’s shocking assault on the state’s long and proud tradition of open government.

This cowardly action, passed by the Committee on July 2 just hours after its introduction, is part of an omnibus motion stuck into the state budget. The committee chairs have refused to say which lawmakers asked for these changes, which will effectively free the state Legislature from the state’s Open Records Law.

The changes would exempt legislative communications from the law; shield from release all “deliberative materials” created for the purpose of making law or public policy (including opinions, analyses and briefings prepared at public expense); shut down public access to all records created in the process of drafting legislation; and specify that the Legislature can freely exempt any record from disclosure simply by passing a rule or policy.

These radical and sweeping changes represent a full-frontal attack on Wisconsin’s history of open government. They are clearly intended to block the public from discovering what factors drive the official actions of government, especially the Legislature, and will inevitably lead to abuse, malfeasance and corruption.

Should they become law, these changes would free the Legislature of the obligations of transparency in place for all other state and local governmental agencies. They will spare lawmakers from the burden of accountability to the people who elect them and pay their salaries. They will shield from public view the collusions of lawmakers with special interest groups, lobbyists and campaign donors.

In one 2014 case, bill drafting records exposed the involvement of a wealthy campaign donor in drafting a bill that would have reduced his own child-support obligation. The changes inserted into the budget bill would keep these records secret.

Bill drafting records have long been understood to be public records, and are now routinely posted online. The change inserted into the budget would make release of these records illegal.

In addition, the omnibus bill cuts away at public access to information about criminal charges in the state’s online court records system. It would allow charges filed against some individuals to “disappear” from this archive. While not as sweeping as some past failed efforts to remove records from this system, it is being done with virtually no public discussion.

The records these changes would seal off have, on countless past occasions, been used to expose wrongdoing and provide essential information on the workings of government. We should be pointing this out, as well as reminding people of the very strong proclamations in favor of transparency that have been made by our elected officials, including Gov. Scott Walker, who as a candidate said that the state Legislature needs to be more transparent.

And all of these changes are strictly policy matters, which have absolutely no business being part of a budget bill.

The Council opposes these changes in the strongest possible terms. We call on our members and supporters, and the public at large, to rise in opposition to this attack on our state’s tradition of open and honest government.

Note: Members of the Legislature opposed to these changes will be holding a press conference on Monday, July 6, in the Assembly Parlor, state Capitol, 1 p.m.

Last Updated on Friday, 03 July 2015 07:36
 

July: Fight lawmaker's shocking attack on open government

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On July 2, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee unleashed a shocking assault on the state’s long and proud tradition of open government.

It happened at night, on the eve of a holiday weekend, just a few hours after the proposal was first unveiled. No one has taken credit for it. Committee co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, literally walked away from a reporter asking whose idea it was.

The committee’s cowardly action, which passed on a 12-4 party line vote with Republicans in the majority, was part of an omnibus motion stuck into the state budget. It will effectively end the Legislature’s need to comply with the state’s Open Records Law.

The changes exempt legislative communications from the law; shield from release all “deliberative materials” created for the purpose of making law or public policy (including opinions, analyses and briefings prepared at public expense); shut down public access to all records created in the process of drafting legislation; and specify that the Legislature can freely exempt any record from disclosure simply by passing a rule or policy.

These radical and sweeping changes represent a full-frontal attack on Wisconsin’s history of open government. They are clearly intended to block the public from discovering what factors drive the official actions of government, especially the Legislature, and will inevitably lead to abuse, malfeasance and corruption.

Should they become law, these changes would free the Legislature of the obligations of transparency in place for all other state and local governmental agencies. They will spare lawmakers from the burden of accountability to the people who elect them and pay their salaries. They will shield from public view the collusions of lawmakers with special interest groups, lobbyists and campaign donors.

In one 2014 case, bill drafting records exposed the involvement of a wealthy campaign donor in drafting a bill that would have reduced his own child-support obligation. The changes inserted into the budget bill would keep these records secret.

Bill drafting records have long been understood to be public records, and are now routinely posted online. The change inserted into the budget would make release of these records illegal.

In addition, the omnibus bill cuts away at public access to information about criminal charges in the state’s online court records system. It would allow charges filed against some individuals to “disappear” from this archive. While not as sweeping as some past failed efforts to remove records from this system, it is being done with virtually no public discussion.

The records these changes would seal off have, on countless past occasions, been used to expose wrongdoing and provide essential information on the workings of government. We should be pointing this out, as well as reminding people of the very strong proclamations in favor of transparency that have been made by our elected officials, including Gov. Scott Walker, who as a candidate said that the state Legislature needs to be more transparent.

And all of these changes are strictly policy matters, which have absolutely no business being part of a budget bill.

The people of Wisconsin need to rise in opposition to this attack on our state’s tradition of open and honest government. The future integrity of our state depends on it.

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. Bill Lueders is the group’s president.

Last Updated on Friday, 03 July 2015 08:24
 

July: UW shouldn’t hide finalist names

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A provision snuck into the state budget bill by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee would deal a significant blow to open government in Wisconsin.

The provision, part of an omnibus motion of changes affecting the University of Wisconsin System, would exempt universities from the rule in place for all other state agencies regarding the naming of finalists for key positions. No longer would they need to identify the five most qualified applicants, or each applicant if there are fewer than five.

Moreover, only a handful of positions would be subject to even this limited disclosure: UW System president and vice presidents, and the chancellor and some vice chancellors at each campus. Currently, the finalist disclosure law applies to finalists for all state positions not in the classified service.

The change will keep the public—state legislators included—from knowing which applicants are passed up for dozens of important university jobs, including highly paid coaches and top administrators.

Media outlets across the state have condemned the change, which passed on a 12-4 party line vote with Republicans in the majority.

“Take it out,” advised the Wisconsin State Journal. “The public has a right to see a list of finalists for key public positions before an applicant is hired.”

“The Joint Finance Committee's action would further erode an open records law that is needed in a democratic government,” wrote the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

“This change in public records law doesn’t belong in the budget bill,” argued the Kenosha News. “At the very least, a policy change like this ought to be discussed on its own, not as part of must-pass legislation.”

And Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial writer Ernst-Ulrich Franzen speculated that lawmakers want “to escape any real discussion or even awareness of the measure. And that’s because they know that the argument for the measure is so weak it would not survive public scrutiny.”

Ironically, in April, the Joint Finance Committee yanked another secrecy provision affecting the UW from the budget submitted by Gov. Scott Walker. This one would have shielded records of university research, including controversial experiments involving dangerous pathogens.

Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, a member of the Joint Finance Committee, has offered this defense of the provision regarding finalists: “Highly successful and qualified individuals who currently hold a position somewhere else may be less inclined to apply if they know their name is going to be made public, even if they aren’t up for final consideration.”

But applicants for high-level jobs at public universities have long accepted disclosure as part of the process. There is no evidence the UW System has suffered a dearth of qualified candidates as a result.

Alex Hummel, spokesman for the UW System, says the change would “focus” finalist disclosure rules on top administrators, “not our larger-than-typical unclassified staff population, as is currently the case.”

But why is transparency for these other jobs a bad idea? Consider that, in January, the UW publicly named its two top candidates to head the University of Wisconsin Press. Before the final selection was made, both made public presentations outlining their vision for this important institution. Isn’t that an example of how things should work?

If lawmakers don’t pull this provision from the budget, Gov. Walker should use his veto pen to do it himself. The university system does not need, or deserve, an exemption from accountability.

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. Bill Lueders, associate editor of The Progressive magazine, is the group's president.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 01 July 2015 11:22
 
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