Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

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Statement on John Doe records

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A statement by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council:

As a rule, emails created by public officials that discuss government business and policies are the public's property and should be available to the public.

But hundreds, and possibly thousands, of emails created in secret by some of former Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker's office staff are closed to public access. They were unearthed during a John Doe investigation of some of Walker's aides and a judge has ordered the material from the investigation not be released to the public.

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council urges the judge who presided over the John Doe investigation to reconsider his secrecy order and release the staff emails because the court proceedings revealed they discuss important county government policies and issues, including patient abuse at a county-run mental health facility and the death of a teenager killed when a concrete slab fell on him in a county parking facility.

The three-year John Doe investigation was recently completed. There's no longer a reason for information generated by public officials on the public’s dime that discusses the public's business to remain secret.

Additionally, the Council calls on the Milwaukee County Board and County Executive Chris Abele to reclaim ownership and take custody of these records, since they should have been turned over to Walker’s successor as state law requires when he left office. See State Statute 19.21(2). These records would then be subject to release under the Public Records Law.

This issue was the subject of an editorial this week in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The Council hopes that others in the media will take similar stands.

 

Hearing set on bill to create new tax on public records

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As we were expecting, a bill to allow custodians to impose a new fee for the time they spend reviewing and redacting records has been introduced in the current legislative session. It is AB 26. The text is here.

This bill has been scheduled for a hearing next Wednesday, Feb. 27, in Room 225 of the state Capitol, 10 a.m. It is one of two bills set for a hearing that day. Council members and supporters are encouraged to attend and testify.

The bill has nine listed cosponsors, eight Republicans and one Democrat. It has been referred to the Assembly Committee on Government Operations and State Licensing.

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council considers this bill a serious threat to the public's ability to obtain public information. It will allow custodians to make some records unaffordable to some requesters, and it will inevitably lead to abuse. The state of Wisconsin got along just fine for many years without these fees being imposed. Custodians only began charging them in the wake of a 2002 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision known as Osborn v. the Board of Regents. In that case, the Supreme Court included some imprecise language regarding the charges that custodians could impose. (See Osborn ruling, P. 3, last line of introduction, and P. 39.) Some custodians seized on this language to begin charging for the time they spent reviewing and redacting records.

When these fees were challenged in a case decided by the court last year, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel v. the City of Milwaukee, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the law did not allow for these costs to be passed on to requesters.

Having been caught imposing what were determined to be illegal fees, custodians have now enlisted the support of some state legislators to change the law to permit these charges.

We urge our members and supporters to stand in opposition to this troubling new tax on the public's right to know. The state's open records law states, in the second sentence of its Declaration of Policy (19.31, state Stats.), the following: "Further, providing persons with such information is declared to be an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of officers and employees whose responsibility it is to provide such information."

The law clearly says that providing records is part of public officials' job. Why should public officials be allowed to charge extra for doing it?

 

Don’t restrict access to open records

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From the Chippewa Herald, an editorial on the proposed bill to allow records custodians to charge for the cost of reviewing and redacting records.

 

Records law author Adelman to receive Wisconsin Watchdog Award

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U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman, the chief author of Wisconsin’s Open Records Law and a strong advocate of the Open Meetings Law, has been named the 2013 recipient of the Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award.

The award is a highlight of the third annual Wisconsin Watchdog Awards reception and dinner, presented jointly on Wednesday, April 24, by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and the Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

"The Open Records Law which Lynn Adelman introduced and worked hard to pass, and the Open Meetings Law he championed, are the bedrock documents of open government in Wisconsin," said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

"All those who care about the state's traditions of openness and its commitment to an informed electorate, so essential to a representative democracy, owe him a huge debt a gratitude."

Adelman was born in Milwaukee. He is a graduate of Princeton University and Columbia Law School.

In 1977, Adelman was elected to the state Senate to represent the 28th District in southeastern Wisconsin. He held the position for 20 years.

Adelman was the principal sponsor of the current version of the state’s Open Records Law, passed in 1981, and a major participant in a 1983 revision of the Open Meetings Law.

Adelman, 73, was appointed in 1997 by President Bill Clinton as a judge in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

The Wisconsin Watchdog Awards, a celebration of investigative reporting and open government, also will feature a keynote address by Lea Thompson, an award-winning investigative journalist and University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate.

Thompson, a Wisconsin native, was a chief correspondent at Dateline NBC for 16 years, and is known for her hard-hitting investigative pieces on consumer, health and safety issues. She now teaches investigative reporting around the world and produces documentaries.

Also at the event, winners of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council’s annual Opee Awards will be recognized for their work promoting open government, and the Madison SPJ chapter will review the year in journalism.

The event at the Madison Club, 5 E. Wilson St., is sponsored by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, Wisconsin State Journal, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, WISC-TV and the law firm McGillivray Westerberg and Bender.

Additional sponsors are being sought. Information is available here.

The evening will begin with a reception at 5 p.m., followed by dinner at 6. Tickets are available for $55.

Register online here. Attendance is limited to 120 and organizers expect all tickets will be sold.

 

 

Five GOP lawmakers settle lawsuit with groups seeking emails

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From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a story of how five Republican legislators settled an open records lawsuit by two liberal groups by agreeing to turn over emails from their personal accounts to and from a conservative organization that works with corporations to draft legislation.

 


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