Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

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Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

December: City leads the way on openness

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Steve Lovejoy

Recently the City of Burlington made some changes to its website, adding a feature it calls a “performance dashboard.”

The online tool gives city residents a better look – much of it in real time – about what their government is doing. As the site explains, “Users can review monthly and yearly revenue, expenditures, per capita spending and performance measurements across several departments.”

In unveiling the site, Burlington Mayor Robert Miller said, “It has been one of my goals that we make city government as transparent as possible.”

That’s the kind of thing that makes advocates of open government want to stand up and clap.

City and state officials and politicians sometimes take the jaundiced view that what they do is their business – and resist sharing the information that forms the path for their actions with citizens and taxpayers.

But it’s not “their” business, it’s the public’s business. The public has every right – within established guidelines and reason – to know the details of government operations. Clearly within this realm is information about how much government costs, how well its decisions stack up against other communities, and what alternatives might be available.

Transparency in government is more than a buzzword, it’s an effective way of communicating with constituents and taxpayers and building trust. Responsible government officials want to make sure their decisions can be fully scrutinized and the people making them can be held accountable.

Too often citizens and media representatives around the state have to leap over hurdles to get information on government actions that should be routinely made available for inspection. That means filing formal information requests and sometimes having to go to court before the requested records are finally made public.

Going to court is never a preferred option. It’s a cumbersome and expensive process that could often be sidestepped if government officials would simply recognize that Wisconsin’s Open Records and Open Meetings laws require that government should operate as openly as possible.

In some cases, public officials and politicians block access to information knowing that by the time the information finally comes out it will be long past the time it is relevant to the issue that made its public release important.

That’s hardly good governance.

Mayor Miller and the city of Burlington’s online initiative stand in stark contrast to those efforts to keep the public in the dark. The city’s new performance dashboard lets Burlington residents (and anyone else) get monthly updates of the city’s general fund revenues and expenditures, for both the current and prior year. Taxpayers can compare the cost of city operations to those of other communities and find details on operation spending.

According to Miller, city department heads and the city council use these same online tools to gauge their spending, develop budgets, monitor performance and make policy choices.

Future plans call for the city of Burlington to stream city council meetings on its website live – and create archives of previous meetings.

All these things should provide Burlington residents with a better window into what their government is doing, the choices and reasons for policies and a more open community discussion of the path the city should take.

That’s opening the window for better government and more community understanding. And it’s something that communities around the state may want to emulate.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a non-profit group dedicated to open government. Steve Lovejoy, a council member, is editor emeritus at the Racine Journal Times.

 
 

Investigative reporter Umhoefer to receive Wisconsin Watchdog Award

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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative reporter Dave Umhoefer, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 investigation into pension padding in Milwaukee County, has been named the 2014 recipient of the Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award.

The award is a highlight of the fourth annual Wisconsin Watchdog Awards reception and dinner, presented jointly 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 April 23 event, a celebration of open government and investigative journalism, is open to the public, with proceeds supporting the nonprofit and nonpartisan Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

"For more than 25 years, Dave Umhoefer has held the powerful accountable for their actions and provided insights into key issues facing Wisconsin communities," said Andy Hall, executive director of the investigative center.

"When we created this award four years ago to recognize an individual’s contributions to open government or investigative journalism, all of us knew that Dave someday would receive it."

Past winners of the award are Dave Zweifel, editor emeritus of The Capital Times and a founder of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council; the late Dick Wheeler, founder of the Wheeler Report newsletter; and U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Adelman, chief author of the state's open records law.

Umhoefer, a La Crosse native and University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, received the School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Distinguished Service Award in 2009.

Umhoefer is a member of the Journal Sentinel’s Watchdog Team, where his work includes PolitiFact Wisconsin. He also is an instructor at Marquette University, where he teaches an investigative reporting class.

“His investigation into pension padding by Milwaukee County officials was so thorough and meticulous that county officials reported themselves to the IRS before the story even ran,” Greg Borowski, the Journal Sentinel’s assistant managing editor for projects and investigations, noted in nominating Umhoefer for the Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award.

“That is emblematic of the work Dave has done. It often tackles complex and arcane subjects or involves reams of paper documents or millions of electronic ones. He is able to get past the spin, sort out the truth and then write with unquestioned authority.”

The Wisconsin Watchdog Awards event also will honor winners of the Freedom of Information Council’s annual Opee Awards for their work promoting open government. The Madison SPJ chapter will review the year in journalism.

The event at The Madison Club, 5 E. Wilson St., begins with a reception at 5 p.m., followed by dinner at 6.

Tickets are available for $55. Discounts are available for purchases of tables. Register online.

Lead sponsorship of the event is provided by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation. Additional support is provided by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and two law firms -- McGillivray Westerberg & Bender and Schott Bublitz & Engel.

Additional sponsors are being sought. Sponsorship information is available online.

Attendance is limited to 120 people.

 

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.

 

December: HIPAA’s reach is often overextended

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Recently, I was told by a court official in Outagamie County that federal law prohibited the release of the name of a man I had just heard speak in open court. He was a participant in the county's Drug and Alcohol Treatment Court. He had been charged with driving while intoxicated as a fourth offense, but was offered a chance to go through a treatment program instead of serving jail time.

I attended the proceeding as a reporter for the Appleton Post-Crescent, working on a story for Gannett Wisconsin Media’s statewide probe into repeat drunken drivers. The man had made a point about the costs of the program and I wanted to verify his charge history.

But when I asked for his name, the court official said it could not be released, citing the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. That law, commonly called HIPAA, protects private health information.

It also, as this episode attests, is often misapplied.

In this case, there was no valid reason for withholding the man's name, and after a discussion with the circuit judge, I was able to obtain it. I ended up using his comment but not naming him in my story.

This was a public program, run by publicly paid officials, involving criminal defendants serving court-ordered sentences. The decision of whether to use this person’s name should be up to the media, not the court official.

As the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has noted, HIPAA remains a “prickly” obstacle for journalists. To help reduce conflicts and confusion, the group has sorted out just who and who isn’t impacted.

Health care organizations like hospitals, life insurers, ambulance services and public health authorities are all subject to HIPAA rules. Firefighters, police, court officials, reporters and patients themselves are not.

Neither are public officials who have nothing to do with the delivery of health care services. And yet, in one instance, a Louisiana State University representative told reporters he couldn’t discuss a player’s knee injury. “Due to these new medical laws, our hands are tied,” the official said.

Often, the most valuable information available to reporters is found on health facility directories, which are not protected by HIPAA. Hospitals may release an individual’s name, location in the facility and general condition. HIPAA also doesn’t bar reporters from interviewing patients in a waiting room.

Statistical information related to hospitals, including their billing data, is not covered by HIPAA. Much of this information can be released electronically without names attached.

The Association of Health Care Journalists has produced another useful list of what HIPAA does not protect, including police and fire incident reports, court records, birth and autopsy records.

Felice Freyer, the association’s treasurer and a member of its Right to Know Committee, said HIPAA overreach is widespread.

“Often times, people are unsure about the law and can’t be bothered to check so it’s easier to say ‘no’ and refer to HIPAA,” said Freyer, a health care reporter for the Boston Globe. “Frequently, hospitals say they can’t let you talk to a patient, but that’s not true.”

No one disputes that people have a right to privacy when it comes to personal medical matters. But that right should not be taken to absurd lengths, beyond what the law prescribes.

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. Nick Penzenstadler, formerly with the Post-Crescent in Appleton, is a reporter for USA Today.

 
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