Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

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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.


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

Seeking Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award nominations

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Nominations are being sought for the 2014 Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award, presented annually to recognize an individual's extraordinary contributions to open government or investigative journalism in Wisconsin.

Dave Zweifel, editor emeritus of The Capital Times and a founder of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, was named the inaugural winner in 2011. The late Dick Wheeler, founder of the Wheeler Report and a tireless advocate for public access to the workings of state government, was honored in 2012. And in 2013, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman, the chief author of Wisconsin's Open Records Law and a strong advocate of the Open Meetings Law, received the award.

The award is presented jointly by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Letters of nomination are accepted from journalists, news organizations and other individuals and organizations involved in open government and investigative journalism issues.

They should be sent by Jan. 22 to Andy Hall, the Center's executive director, at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or WCIJ, 5006 Vilas Communication Hall, 821 University Ave., Madison, WI 53706.

The recipient will be selected by a panel of representatives from the Center, FOIC and SPJ, and will be honored at the Wisconsin Watchdog Awards reception and dinner, which is scheduled for April 23 at The Madison Club.


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

January: Local Government Center a valuable resource

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Each election year in Wisconsin, about one-third of the local government offices on the ballot will be filled by newcomers — driven to office by a reformer’s zeal or a desire to serve their friends and neighbors. And some of them will know little about the laws that govern the conduct of local government.

That’s where the UW-Extension’s Local Government Center steps in.

For the past 21 years, the center has worked quietly behind the scenes to help neophytes learn the ropes and veteran office holders update their knowledge. Philip Freeburg, the center’s local government law educator, describes the operation as a “boots on the ground” representation of the Wisconsin Idea.

The center offers workshops, fact sheets and teleconferences on a wide range of topics: government finances, human resources, disaster management, elections and ethics. Its mission also includes expanding research and knowledge about local government education.

But no function is more important than the center’s efforts to educate local officials on the state’s Open Records and Open Meetings Laws. It frequently works in concert with associations representing the state’s cities, towns and counties.

Nor should the center be overlooked as source of information for Wisconsin citizens who want to learn about local governance, including open meetings and open records.

Given the emotional issues — sand mining and land use master plans come to mind — that frequently dot Wisconsin’s political landscape, civility can be a resource in short supply. Failure to comply with the state’s Open Meetings and Open Records Laws can exacerbate ill will between officials and citizens.

“People are keenly interested and want to learn about this,” says Freeburg when asked to discuss how citizens’ interests and local government intersect at controversial issues. “They deal with a structure completely new to them.”

To aid in its efforts, the center has created a 10-part video on the state’s Open Meeting Law. In a series of scenarios, UW students serve as would-be elected officials and government employees. They address issues ranging from proper public notice requirements for meetings to when email exchanges between elected officials might constitute a de facto meeting and violate the law.

The installments serve as a basic primer on open meetings. Scenarios are presented in easily digestible bites. (For a sample clip, see http://fyi.uwex.edu/lgcprogramstore/2012/11/open-meetings-video-teaser/.)

Although the video and a related fact sheet on Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law may seem elementary to experienced public officials and scholars, they can serve as valuable resources for new officeholders and the public, as well as high school and college students studying journalism or political science.

The center’s instructional materials can be downloaded from its website for free. There is a $20 fee for teleconferences, including a recent session on civil dialogue in local government, and related printed material.

The DVD on the Open Meetings Law can be ordered at little or no cost through educational specialists working at UW-Extension’s county offices across Wisconsin.

Last spring, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council honored the Local Government Center for its work in this area. UW-Extension Chancellor Ray Cross accepted the council’s Political Openness Award, or Popee, on the Center’s behalf.

“Whether it’s presenting in town halls, supper clubs or church basements, or developing videos and fact sheets or through telephone conversations, these educators have helped countless local officials adopt not only the letter of the law but the spirit of the law,” Cross said in accepting the award.

The center’s “Open government” portal can be found at http://lgc.uwex.edu/OpenGovt/index.html.

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 John Dye of De Pere is a retired executive editor of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2013 13:50

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