Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

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March: Open those cookies, and more

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As part of national Sunshine Week (sunshineweek.org), March 16-22, members of the Madison student and professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists fanned out across the capital city, handing out fortune cookies.

We dropped a handful in the offices of the elected officials, from Madison School Board to Gov. Scott Walker, as well as some unelected boards like the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents.

Each cookie contained a wise and honorable message: "You will be open and transparent when conducting public business." "You will uphold the letter and the spirit of the Wisconsin open records and open meetings laws." "A year of good fortune showers those who revere open government."

The fortune cookies and their messages serve as a reminder to those elected or appointed to do the public's business that they work for you - the voting and taxpaying public. Here are some examples from over the past year that illustrate why these Sunshine Week reminders, no matter how gimmicky, are needed:

* We now know how brazenly Walker's Milwaukee County executive office was in seeking to hide its business from the public, to the point of setting up a secret email system. Investigators suspect, and common sense suggests, Walker knew about the secret system, and the overt commingling of his public and campaign staff. No one begrudges politicians from considering political calculations when making decisions, but we expect them to stay on the right side of the law.

* Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen have argued Vukmir and all lawmakers are exempt from the records law for their entire terms in office - an unprecedented legal position that would let lawmakers ignore the law. Meanwhile, Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, is fighting a legal battle to shield the names of constituents who contact him - an approach adopted by some of his legislative colleagues but rejected by other elected officials, including Walker.

* In the waning days of the legislative session, lawmakers are considering a bill to eliminate numerous records from the state online court database. This website simply includes information that is already public record in courthouses across the state; putting it online and making it available to the public only makes sense.

* State lawmakers snuck numerous last-minute measures into the 2013-15 state budget, including ones to create a bail bonds system and expel an investigative journalism center from the UW-Madison. Credit Walker for vetoing them.

* The same budget writers used obscure language to direct funding to a politically connected sportsmen's group that had publicly obscured its tax status and whose leader had run afoul of hunting law. Literally, this was the gang that couldn't shoot straight.

* Twice, UW officials pushed language seeking to create blanket exemptions for university research. You'd think after one embarassing beat down they would have learned their lesson. Both measures were stopped in their tracks.

* The university and the UW System also failed to adhere to legal guidance from the Attorney General's office to reveal the names of five finalists for their top jobs in a timely manner. The System did not release the names of all finalists until after it had chosen a president.

* Finally, municipalities across the state are shielding information on traffic tickets out of fear that they will be sued, under a highly questionable interpretation of a federal court ruling. Curiously, no other state is taking this approach.

Let's hope the people who received our fortune cookies take them not only to stomach but heart.

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 Mark Pitsch is an assistant city editor at the Wisconsin State Journal and president of the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 19 March 2014 07:28

March: Openness awards cap trying year

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This last year has seen almost constant threats to the state's openness laws. We’ve had local law enforcement agencies suppressing drivers license information, a state senator claiming immunity from civil suits to evade the open records law, and attempts to deny public access to records of circuit court cases and university research.

All of these threats were met with opposition, and none of these battles has yet been lost. But the year served to remind us that the price of protecting our state's traditions of open government is eternal vigilance.

As part of national Sunshine Week (March 16-22), the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is bestowing awards for extraordinary achievement in the cause of open government. There are five positive Openness Awards, or Opees, and one negative, the Nopee.

The awards will be presented at the fourth annual Wisconsin Watchdog Awards Dinner in Madison on Wednesday, April 23. The event is presented jointly by the Council, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, and the Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Political Openness Award (“Popee”): Dan Ault. Throughout the state, dozens of law enforcement agencies are withholding basic information like names and ages from accident reports, under an overzealous interpretation of a federal court ruling. Ault, the police chief of Oconto in northeast Wisconsin, this summer bucked the trend and began providing fuller disclosure. “It’s just common sense,” Ault said. And it's about time other officials started following his lead.

Citizen Openness Award (“Copee”): Becky Kostopolus and Marilyn Bartelt. Kostopolus, a mother in Appleton, complained to the school district about teachers who posted inappropriate comments about her son. District officials wouldn't say what if any action they took in response, so Bartelt, the boy's grandmother, requested disciplinary records for seven educators. When the request was denied, she sued, with the help of attorney April Barker. In February, a judge ordered the records released.

Media Openness Award (“Mopee”): Ellen Gabler and Allan James Vestal, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Reporter Gabler and news applications developer Vestal documented gaping disparities and delays in a common genetic test given to newborns, resulting in preventable disability and even death. The pair fought to obtain records from about 30 states, then worked to analyze and present the data. The “Deadly Delays” series, also involving reporters Mark Johnson and John Fauber and photojournalist Kristyna Wentz-Graff, spurred congressional action and individual state reforms.

Open Records Scoop of the Year (“Scoopee”): David Wahlberg, Wisconsin State Journal. This seasoned reporter culled public records and created his own database to expose the lax treatment by the state medical-examining board of physicians. Wahlberg found cases involving serious injury and even deaths that drew mere reprimands. The series, “Doctor Discipline,” led to changes in practice and promises of further reform.

Whistleblower of the Year: David Salkin. When this Milwaukee property owner learned that the bad tenants who rented space from him for a store were undercover federal agents, he contacted the press. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s year-long investigation exposed a series of failures and rogue tactics that put the community at risk, prompting a federal investigation and congressional hearings.

No Friend of Openness Award (“Nopee”): Sen. Glenn Grothman. As noted above, there was no shortage of attacks this year on the public’s right to know by members of the Legislature. But Grothman, R-West Bend, took top honors for sponsoring a bill to end the requirement that political campaigns disclose the principal employer of major donors, and another bill to purge information from the state's online court records system.

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 Wednesday, 12 March 2014 10:17

March: Walker must answer questions on emails

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Like many other people in Wisconsin, I spent some time recently digging into the 27,000 pages of emails released from the John Doe probe into alleged illegal activities by the staff of then-Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker.

I was somewhat surprised to find my name appear.

In June of 2010, amid the hotly contested race for governor, I made an open records request of GOP candidate Walker's county office. I was looking for information about the new security screening firm named Wackenhut that was recently hired to conduct security at the Milwaukee County courthouse.

What I found in the batch of emails was that Kelly Rindfleisch, Walker's deputy chief of staff, forwarded my request to Keith Gilkes, Walker's gubernatorial campaign manager, seeking his counsel on what information should be released to me.

Gilkes replied in an email that he must have thought would never be released to the public. "Just give him a number of what the contract cost," Gilkes advised. "(J)ust something that fulfills the request without giving him anything."

I have not had the time to read all 27,000 pages of emails, the equivalent of about 100 books, but I probably don't need to. It's clear from this exchange, and others that have been reported, what was going on.

Apparently, many of the hundreds of open records requests being made of Walker's office were going to the Walker campaign for review. Clearly, these were all public records and the campaign should have had no involvement whatsoever in their review or release.

The open records law is the most powerful tool the people of this state have to hold government officials accountable. As a citizen activist, I use the law frequently. I have seen numerous cases where officials have told the public one thing while saying something else altogether in an email they think will never be made public.

While I do not consider myself a reporter or a journalist, that does not prevent me from using the state's open records law. In fact, the law is open to anyone and is meant to be used by everyone.

I have been a proud and outspoken supporter of Scott Walker going back to some of his early races for state Assembly. I was one of the leaders of the effort to recall then-County Executive Tom Ament 12 years ago in the infamous "Milwaukee County Pension Scandal." That effort helped Walker get elected as Milwaukee County executive and eventually propelled him to the governor's office.

Gov. Walker's response to the release of these emails is to call them "old news."

That is not selling with me or many other members of the public. It shouldn't.

Scott Walker, like him or not, has always been forthcoming in answering questions from the media. I am asking him to answer the many questions raised by some of the more alarming emails in this mountain of electronic documents. I think he owes that much to the people who elected him.

If he did not know about the secret email system, he should say so. If he did not know his staff was consulting his campaign manager on how to fulfill its statutory obligations to the public, he should say that.

We're all ears.

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. Orville Seymer is a longtime leader of Citizens for Responsible Government, a conservative advocacy group.

Last Updated on Monday, 03 March 2014 10:17

Action alert on bill to gut information on WCCA (CCAP)

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SB 526, the bill that would purge the state's online records system of information about criminal cases that do not lead to convictions, or are overturned on appeal, passed a Senate committee yesterday on a 5-0 vote. The bill is now available for a full Senate vote.

This is the most serious attempt to date to deprive the public of full and accurate information about the state's court system through WCCA, or what everyone calls CCAP. It is on the fast track to passage despite opposition from state media and the Freedom of Information Council, state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, Director of State Courts John Voelker, individual clerks of court, and representatives of property owners.

Now is the time to make the case that the people of Wisconsin can be trusted to make appropriate use of the information on this system; that they don't need lawmakers stepping in to prevent them from knowing what is happening in the court system they pay for.

Without a doubt, some employers and others use the information on this system to unfairly deny opportunities to applicants. But there is no evidence this practice is as widespread as the site's critics claim. Representatives of business groups and landlord associations have offered credible testimony attesting to their commitment to following the law and using this information in appropriate ways. Some employers and landlords post job openings and put up "For rent" signs because they
actually need workers and want tenants, not simply so they can turn people away due to a dismissed charge from long ago.

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council fundamentally opposes the idea at the heart of this bill, that the way to deal with a perceived problem regarding the use of public information is to make it harder to obtain that information. More harm than good will come from this approach.

SB 526 would greatly restrict what records are available on WCCA and thus dramatically undercut the site's usefulness. Records showing that charges against an individual were dismissed or led to a finding of not guilty would no longer appear. Information would also have to be removed for convictions overturned on appeal.

Passage of this bill would be a boon for private providers of court records data, those companies that offer to run background checks on people for, say, $10 a pop or $30 for full access each year. And those private operators do not have the same checks on accuracy as does the state's system.

In fact, under this bill, WCCA would go from being a tool for tracking what happens in our state court system into being a registry of known offenders. Only the names of those found guilty would appear.

If this bill were to pass, WCCA would henceforth give a distorted view of what happens in our courts. For instance, every prosecutor would have a 100 percent conviction rate on every charge, because charges that were dismissed would not appear.

It would mean that most of the charges brought against former members of the Legislature, like Brian Burke and Chuck Chvala, would disappear from view.

The idea driving this bill is that ordinary citizens lack the intelligence or decency to make rational judgments about cases in which charges are dismissed or a defendant has been found not guilty. The people of Wisconsin deserve more credit than that.


February: OpenBook offers partial peek at state spending

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In January, the state of Wisconsin launched a new website with a searchable database that lets the public see what state government spends on goods, services and other operating costs.

OpenBook Wisconsin — openbook.wi.gov — debuted with more than 25 million records for expenses including real estate transactions, building projects, maintenance, office supplies, and rents.

Records for state agencies, the Legislature and the courts date back to mid-2007. The site’s records for the University of Wisconsin System start in fiscal 2013.

The site, which the state plans to update every two weeks, allows searches for each fiscal year by state agency, type of expenditure or vendor. The records viewers see are similar to listings on monthly credit card statements. 

On the plus side, OpenBook Wisconsin lets members of the public instantly obtain some information on state spending that they once would have had to ask for and wait. It provides a variety of avenues for people to monitor how much state government spends.

But the site also has some glaring minuses. OpenBook provides an overwhelming amount of data, but the records are scant on meaningful details and descriptions to the point of being misleading. Some examples:

* The site lists $22.4 million in information technology payments to private companies in fiscal 2013 by the Department of Health Services but doesn’t describe the purchased goods, services or projects. Health Services is one of the state’s largest agencies with oversight over hundreds of health care, insurance, public safety and other programs.

All told, state agencies paid private companies nearly $94 million for IT goods and services that year. But the website’s users don’t get any details of what the state specifically got for its buck.

* The site shows the Department of Natural Resources spent $47.1 million for land and related fees and costs in fiscal 2011. The records show the date, vendor, cost and whether the purchase was for conservation or capital construction, repair or maintenance projects. But users are not told the location or amount of land purchased, or details about the capital project.

One entry shows the department paid the Society of Tympanuchus $1.2 million on July 13, 2010, for a capital improvement. End of story.

* The site says the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation paid the Potawatomi Bingo Casino $5,833 on Oct. 15, 2012 for “Miscellaneous Services.”  Hmmm. Perhaps the state paid for a wild night of bingo and slots for some of its employees?

Actually, no. The site lets users request more information about specific transactions. I did so for this transaction and a day later received a response from WEDC spokesman Mark Maley. He said the payment was for food, beverages and rent to hold a two-day education and training conference to assist businesses owned by women, minorities and disabled veterans.

The Department of Administration plans to add additional information over the course of months and even years, like spending on state salaries, contracts and grants, and greater detail on spending records when technology develops to let it do so.

OpenBook is the state’s second attempt to make state spending more transparent to the public on a large scale. It replaces an online database called Contract Sunshine launched in 2007 that was chronically incomplete and difficult to use.

Let’s hope the second try does a better job at giving the public what it has a right to know.

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 Michael Buelow is a former Associated Press reporter and research director for the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (www.wisdc.org).

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 January 2014 09:50

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