Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

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April: Walker’s records directive is good news

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Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of open government and the people’s right to know, got an unexpected and welcome beam of hope in mid-March when Gov. Scott Walker issued an executive order directing state agencies to speed up responses to public records requests and to track them to show their performance.

“We go above and beyond what is required by the law when it comes to public record requests to make sure we are being as open and transparent as possible for our citizens,” Walker said in a statement.

The news was like a gust of fresh spring air blowing across state government. We commend the governor’s actions and hope he is a true convert, after a bit of waywardness, to the cause of transparency in government.

As Wisconsin’s open records and open meetings laws have long recognized, transparency is essential to the honest operation of government and the conduct of the public’s business.

Too often in recent months, it has seemed that the state’s Open Records law was under siege from state Republicans. An attempt to gut the law by legislative leaders last July prompted a fierce backlash and the effort was quickly abandoned.

Later in the summer, the state Public Records Board expanded the definition of records considered to have temporary significance which allowed them to be immediately destroyed. That, too, was met with public outrage and the board reversed itself in January.

Walker’s initiative promises a new path for more accountable and responsive government. It includes specific directives to promote public access.

The governor went beyond what is prescribed in state statutes by setting specific timelines for agencies to respond to requests for information, which, we hope, will end the weeks or even months of delay that has sometimes greeted information requests from citizens and media.

Henceforth, state agencies will be expected to acknowledge receipt of requests within one day, and to fulfill simple records requests within 10 days whenever practicable.

The governor also directed state agencies to provide electronic copies of records when they are available without charging copying fees, and called on them to set aside enough staff resources to create a tracking system on public records requests. That will create a measuring stick to see how agencies are performing.

Finally, the governor’s order reminded state agencies of existing rules forbidding them from charging for the costs they incur reviewing records for possible redaction, and requiring them to bill requesters only for the cost of locating records at the compensation rate of the lowest paid employee capable of performing the task—and then only if the cost is more than $50.

Those are all welcome steps that we hope will go a long way toward allowing state citizens to get the information they need to understand what their government is doing.

Advocates of open government have only one lament: the governor’s directive applies just to state agencies. Local governments — cities, counties, villages, towns, school boards and other government entities, including the state Legislature — would do well to follow the governor’s lead and institute similar steps.

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 is editor emeritus of The Journal Times, Racine.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 29 March 2016 11:19
 

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council names “Opee” winners

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Bill Lueders (608) 669-4712

March 8, 2016

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council names “Opee” winners

Wisconsin’s Republican attorney general and a key GOP lawmaker are among the recipients, good and bad, of the 2015-16 Openness Awards, or Opees, bestowed annually by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

The awards, announced in advance of national Sunshine Week (sunshineweek.org), March 13-19, recognize extraordinary achievement in the cause of open government. It is the tenth consecutive year that the awards have been given.

“In 2015, we saw shocking attacks on the state’s traditions of open government,” said Bill Lueders, council president. “And while we are pleased to be able to recognize a few heroes, it is profoundly dismaying that we had so many zeroes to consider in rating assaults on transparency.”

Besides a cowardly attempt by lawmakers to gut the state’s open records law in early July, lawmakers acted to reduce transparency in campaign finance reports and Gov. Scott Walker’s administration embraced extra-legal interpretations of statutory language to justify shutting down records access.

“If not for the loud and clear opposition of Wisconsin residents from across the political spectrum, we would have lost much more ground than we did,” said Lueders, noting the changes forced by public reaction to the July proposals and to a new, immediately abused change in the definition of “transitory records.”

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is a nonpartisan group that seeks to promote open government. It consists of about two dozen members representing media and other public interests. Sponsoring organizations include the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, Wisconsin Associated Press, Wisconsin News Photographers and the Madison Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

The winners will be invited to receive their awards at the sixth annual Wisconsin Watchdog Awards Dinner in Madison on Wednesday, April 20. The event is presented jointly by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism,Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and the Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Awards are being given this year to institutions and individuals in six categories. The winners are:

Political Openness Award (“Popee”): Brad Schimel. Wisconsin’s Republican attorney general offered strong public opposition to the Legislature’s attack on the open records law, and helped affirm the value of open government at a summit he organized. Schimel’s new Office of Open Government has also led by example in setting out to improve its response time to records requests. The Council doesn’t agree with the AG on everything, but is pleased with how seriously he takes his statutory role to interpret and enforce the state’s openness laws.

Media Openness Award (“Mopee”): George Stanley and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

When state lawmakers launched their sneak attack on the state’s open records law, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and its editor clicked into high gear, including a front-page editorial that helped force legislative leaders to back down, followed by aggressive reporting to uncover who was responsible for this proposal. Stanley and his staff, including editorial page editor David Haynes and associate editor Ernst-Ulrich Franzen, remained strong advocates for open government throughout the year, beating back other threats.

Citizen Openness Award (“Copee”): Sheila Plotkin. This McFarland resident undertook a huge open records project. She has battled with lawmakers who voted to dismantle the Government Accountability Board and hike political spending while decreasing transparency in a new campaign finance law to release the input they received from citizens on these issues. The results—showing that lawmakers disregarded the overwhelming weight of this input—are posted online, at we-the-irrelevant.org.

Open Records Scoop of the Year: (“Scoopee”): Greg Neumann, WKOW-TV. This was a banner year for stories based on records, including the Wisconsin State Journal’s reporting on bad state economic development loans, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s uncovering of abuse allegations at a juvenile prison, and the Center for Media and Democracy’s discovery of changes to the “Wisconsin Idea.” But top honors go to this Madison television station for exposing how Walker administration officials and otherusedpersonalemail accounts to conduct official business, contrary to public assurances.

Whistleblower of the Year (“Whoopee”): Molly Regan . This former state employee quit her job when her concerns about questionable practices at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. were not, she believed, taken seriously. And she did not stay quiet about it, talking to The Progressive magazine and providing critical information that formed the basis for the Wisconsin State Journal’s story on how top state officials had pushed for a failed $500,000 loan to a struggling Milwaukee construction company, spurring new safeguards on how agency dollars are spent.

No Friend of Openness (“Nopee”): Robin Vos. Plenty of people deserve blame over the mid-summer attack on open records. Gov. Walker’s staff helped with the drafting and all 12 Republican members of the Joint Finance Committee voted for the changes after strenuous objections were raised by committee Democrats. But Assembly Speaker Vos was the main architect and subsequently sought a bill to exempt the Legislature from the records law. Vos also authored a bill amendment to end the longstanding requirement that significant donors to political campaigns reveal where they work, bringing darkness where once there was light. He was the worst of the worst in an abnormally bad year.

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March: Records advocates plan traveling show

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Among the many remarkable things about the defeat of the proposed overhaul of the Wisconsin Public Records Law over the July 4 weekend last summer was the way the media, open government groups, advocacy organizations on the left and right, and the public coalesced to point out how ill-conceived the idea was.

The reaction to this sneak attack on open government was immediate, overwhelming and decisive. No other issue in state government in recent years has generated such a uniform—and effective—response. Gov. Scott Walker and the legislature leaders backed down within 48 hours.

Lawmakers seemed chastened, but advocates of open government must remain vigilant. In fact, the efforts to restrict the public’s access to information have not stopped.

It’s not a stretch to suggest that open government in Wisconsin is threatened; some might say it’s under attack. That’s because the attempt to gut the records law is just one of several examples from the past year suggesting lawmakers’ disregard for the public’s right to know.

In response, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists are joining with open government advocates from both sides of the political aisle and media groups to bring what we’re calling the Open Government Traveling Show to communities across the state.

For three days in mid-March, during the nationwide celebration of open government known as Sunshine Week, we’ll be offering a 90-minute tutorial and presentation on the state’s open records law in eight Wisconsin cities. The goal is to help Wisconsin residents understand how the law can be used and why it is important.

In addition to WFOIC, SPJ-Madison and lawyer April Barker of Schott, Bublitz and Engel S.C., the conservative groups the MacIver Institute for Public Policy, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and the liberal groups the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and the Center for Media and Democracy will take part in the Open Government Traveling Show. Despite their differences on many policy issues, these groups agree on the importance of open government.

And in fact, representatives of the MacIver Institute and WILL, along with Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel, were among the most influential voices last year opposing the records changes at the Capitol.

Also supporting the Traveling Show is the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

From March 15 to 17, the tour will visit eight cities: La Crosse, Eau Claire, Wausau, Green Bay, Appleton, Sheboygan, Waukesha and Janesville. If it’s successful, we’ll consider another tour in the future.

Wisconsin’s open records law is a vital component of our representative democracy. It should be strengthened, not weakened. And we must fight to protect 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. 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 Tuesday, 01 March 2016 17:31
 

March: Opee Awards honor good acts and bad

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This has not been a good year for open government in Wisconsin. Last July’s sneak attack on Wisconsin’s open records law, though beaten back, was just one of several efforts to erode our state’s proud tradition of transparency.

These included a successful move to reduce transparency in campaign finance reports and the use of extra-legal interpretations of statutory language by state officials to justify shutting down records access.

And yet, along with the bad, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, devoted to protecting access to public meetings and records, found plenty to celebrate. Here are the recipients of our tenth annual Openness Awards, or Opees, to be presented at the Wisconsin Watchdog Awards Dinner in Madison on Wednesday, April 20.

Political Openness Award (“Popee”): Brad Schimel. Wisconsin’s Republican attorney general offered strong public opposition to the Legislature’s attack on the open records law, and helped affirm the value of open government at a summit he organized. Schimel’s new Office of Open Government has also led by example in setting out to improve its response time to records requests. The council doesn’t agree with the AG on everything, but is pleased with how seriously he takes his statutory role to interpret and enforce the state’s openness laws.

Media Openness Award (“Mopee”): George Stanley and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

When state lawmakers launched their sneak attack, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and its editor clicked into high gear, including a front-page editorial that helped force legislative leaders to back down, followed by aggressive reporting to uncover who was responsible for this proposal. Stanley and his staff, including editorial page editor David Haynes and associate editor Ernst-Ulrich Franzen, remained strong advocates for open government throughout the year.

Citizen Openness Award (“Copee”): Sheila Plotkin. This McFarland resident has battled with lawmakers who voted to dismantle the Government Accountability Board and hike political spending while decreasing transparency in a new campaign finance law to release the input they received from citizens on these issues. The results—showing that lawmakers disregarded the overwhelming weight of this input—are posted online, at we-the-irrelevant.org.

Open Records Scoop of the Year: (“Scoopee”): Greg Neumann, WKOW-TV. In a banner year for stories based on records, top honors go to this Madison television station for exposing how Walker administration officials and others used personal email accounts to conduct official business, contrary to public assurances.

Whistleblower of the Year (“Whoopee”): Molly Regan. This former state employee quit her job over concerns about questionable practices at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. She talked to The Progressive and provided critical information that sparked the Wisconsin State Journal’s story on how top state officials pushed for a failed $500,000 loan to a struggling construction company, spurring new safeguards on how agency dollars are spent.

No Friend of Openness (“Nopee”): Robin Vos. Plenty of people deserve blame over the mid-summer attack on open records. But Assembly Speaker Vos was the main architect and subsequently sought a bill to exempt the Legislature from the records law. Vos also authored a bill amendment to end the longstanding requirement that significant donors to political campaigns reveal where they work, bringing darkness where once there was light. He was the worst of the worst in an abnormally bad year.

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 Council’s president.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 08 March 2016 12:49
 

Open Government's Advocates to Take Show on the Road

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

February 23, 2016

Contact: Mark Pitsch, (608) 252-6145; Bill Lueders, (608) 669-4712

Advocates of open government in Wisconsin are planning a three-day, eight-city informational tour to highlight the importance of the state’s open records laws, in the wake of unprecedented attacks from state lawmakers and others.

“An open society depends on open government. Wisconsin residents understand that,” says Mark Pitsch, president of the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and an assistant city editor at the Wisconsin State Journal. “Last summer’s attempt to gut the records law is just one of several recent examples of official disregard for the public’s right to know. It’s time for education and vigilance.”

The “Open Government Traveling Show” will take place from Tuesday, March 15, through Thursday, March 17, as part of national Sunshine Week, the annual “celebration of access to public information.”

The events - free and open to the public - are aimed at helping Wisconsin residents understand the open records law and how to use it. Each 90-minute presentation will feature a tutorial on the records law and examples of its use by journalists and advocates.

Participants will include representatives of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, the Center for Media and Democracy, the MacIver Institute for Public Policy and Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

The tour is also supported by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Each stop has its own local sponsor.

The traveling show will take place in the following locations:

La Crosse: March 15, 2 p.m. La Crosse Public Library. Local sponsor: La Crosse Tribune.

Eau Claire: March 15, 7 p.m. Centennial Hall, Room 1614, UW-Eau Claire. Local sponsor: Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, UW-Eau Claire chapter, Society of Professional Journalists

Wausau: March 16, 10 a.m. Marathon County Public Library. Local sponsor: Wausau Daily Herald-USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Green Bay : March 16, 2 p.m. Green Bay Public Library. Local Sponsor: Green Bay Press-Gazette-USA TODAY NETWORK-WISCONSIN

Appleton: March 16, 7:30 p.m. Appleton Public Library. Local sponsor: Appleton Post-Crescent-USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Sheboygan: March 17, 10 a.m. Sheboygan Public Library. Local sponsor: Sheboygan Press-USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Waukesha: March 17, 2 p.m, Waukesha Public Library. Local sponsor: Schott, Bublitz and Engel S.C.

Janesville: March 17, 7 p.m. Blackhawk Technical College. Local sponsor: Janesville Gazette

 


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