Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

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Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

December: Open the door to open data

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Scott Resnick, a former Madison alderperson, is proud of the work he’s done to advance the cause of open data. In 2012, the city enacted what he says was only the second open data ordinance in the country.

Open data is the practice of releasing huge quantities of public information in electronic form so it can be put to other public purposes. Governments, citizens, companies or others may then discover ways to use the data to create technological applications or to identify public issues that should be addressed.

While the concept sounds tech-heavy, the potential applications of open data span any number of real-world applications. For example, in Madison, Resnick says, a “bus radar” application designed by a university student allows would-be riders to track the location of a bus in real time, making it easier to avoid missing the bus.

The city of Madison’s open data initiative also led to development of an “adopt a fire hydrant” app that encourages citizens to locate and shovel out fire hydrants nearest them, Resnick says.

Nationally, the open data movement has increased access to geographic and weather data. Another “hot topic” in open data, Resnick says, is tracking police-related shootings and ensuring that data is standardized so that meaningful comparisons can be made.

Open data is popular among a new generation of virtual volunteers, including what Resnick refers to as “civic hacking groups.” Businesses are also prolific users. Resnick, who serves as chief operating officer of a private company, sees both as “a worthy use of government resources.”

Some companies use the data to improve public health, Resnick adds, noting that a private California-based company has developed an application that works with local fire departments to locate the nearest hospital for individuals in need of CPR. While the company is for-profit, Resnick notes, “their goal is to save lives.”

And while some companies may offer services derived from open data for a charge, Resnick says that when those companies compete with others who offer the services for free, “almost always, the free one has won out.”

Critics complain that open data only showcases data that government agencies choose to share, not more controversial records and information. But Resnick calls open data a “first step” that reinforces positive attitudes within government toward publicly releasing data. (He stresses that government should be careful to consider individuals’ privacy when releasing data.)

Other Wisconsin communities, including Milwaukee, are taking steps toward open data initiatives, and there is in interest on the state level, Resnick says. Many other states have legislation promoting open data.

With so much broad-based support for open data, those who seek to promote transparency in government need to be part of the conversation as it moves forward.

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. April Barker, the Council’s co-vice president, is an attorney with Schott, Bublitz & Engel of Brookfield.

 

Development in Public Records Board case

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Dear Council members and supporters:

Matthew Blessing, the chair of the state Public Records Board, has just released to me the attached statement, in response to the verified complaint filed by the Council early this week. The statement says the Board intends to revisit the agenda items from its Aug. 24 meeting that were the subject of our complaint.

... I thank the Board for its response and welcome the opportunity this creates to rethink changing this language, especially in light of the way that it has been broadly interpreted by others in state government as granting authority to destroy certain records.

Bill Lueders
President
Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

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December 17, 2015

STATEMENT CONCERNING PUBLIC RECORDS BOARD’S CONSIDERATION

OF TRANSITORY RECORDS

When the Public Records Board issued the agenda for the August 24 meeting, we anticipated addressing a number of items which we believed to be relatively routine and uncontroversial. It has become clear in the past few weeks that there is considerable interest in some of the items that were included in the nine page index attached to the meeting agenda. However, public concern over the management of transitory records has led the board to reevaluate the matter.

Part of our goal as the Public Records Board is to strike a balance between ensuring open and accessible government records and setting reasonable requirements on governmental bodies and officials relative to the retention of records. Our default position is, of course, toward transparency. Given the concerns that have been expressed regarding our decisions at the August 24 meeting, we believe it is in everyone’s interest to revisit that discussion about transitory records with clear notice to the public of the intent to address that issue.

Thus, the board will revisit actions taken relative to item number 4(a)(ii), index # 103 on the agenda for the August 24 meeting, and will place those items on a detailed agenda for an upcoming meeting. We hope that this will alleviate any need for the public to suffer the cost of any litigation relating to the verified complaint that was filed with the Dane County District Attorney.

Respectfully,

Matthew Blessing
Chair, Public Records Board
Phone: (608) 264-6480
Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

CC: Georgia L. Thompson, Executive Secretary of the Public Records Board


 

Action Alert on Bill to Shield Information on Campaign Donors

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The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is issuing an Action Alert on proposed legislation to end the requirement that donors to political candidates or committees identify their principal employer. The proposal was introduced Oct. 15 by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos as an amendment to AB387, a bill to rewrite state campaign finance laws, and promptly approved by a state legislative committee, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report.

We believe this legislation is unneeded, and that it would represent a retreat from the state's traditions of openness, contrary to the express recent declaration of lawmakers. It would complicate the task of tracking down donations by particular interest groups, and increase the possibility that donors will be misidentified.

Previous legislative attempts to eliminate this reporting requirement, including SB292 in the 2011-2012 session, were unsuccessful after drawing opposition from advocates of open and accountable government.

Proponents have argued that it is necessary to shield the names of employers to prevent them from being targeted or harassed. Besides a dearth of examples, this argument fails because this bill would do nothing to prevent this from occurring. Major donors could still, with a bit more work, be associated with particular employers, especially in cases where they are officers of these companies.

There are many legitimate uses of this information. For instance, it is used by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and others to link campaign donors into interest groups.

The provision would make it harder to track the affiliations of multiple contributors, undercutting one of the few tools available to the public to associate donations with interest groups. And the Government Accountability Board has said access to this information was helpful when it investigated allegations that Bill Gardner of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad used his employees to make contributions in excess of legal limits. Mr. Gardner was convicted of two felonies in connection with these donations.

Finally, having access to employer information makes it less likely that a given donor will be mistaken for someone else. While it appears that
donors who give more than $200 must report their occupation, there are multiple instances in which different donors have the same name and occupation, such as "attorney."

On July 9, the state Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution stating that it "remains committed to our state's open record and open government laws and policies, and will take all necessary steps to ensure that these laws and policies are preserved without modification or degradation."

AB387, as amended, clearly violates this stated intent and should be widely opposed, in the brief period of time before it is likely to be voted on. The Council encourages its members to report and editorialize on this topic, providing additional examples about how having access to this information has served the public interest.

 

February: Concerns linger over ‘transitory’ records

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The last six months have been a roller coaster for Wisconsin’s open records law. After the Legislature’s failed attack on the law over the Independence Day holiday, August brought a new threat.

A little-known state board expanded the definition of “transitory records,” which can be immediately destroyed. Once this action was revealed, there was an impressive outcry from the public and that change was dialed back last month. But there is still cause for concern.

The state Public Records Board sets retention schedules for state and local government records. Retention is important — if records aren’t retained, they can’t be requested and obtained by the public. State law makes retention the rule, and records can be disposed of only if the Public Records Board grants permission. The board’s mandate is to “safeguard the legal, financial and historical interests of the state in public records.”

But in 2010, the board made the questionable decision to allow immediate deletion of some correspondence. Such “transitory records” were deemed of such temporary value as to not require any retention. State agency employees could simply delete these records after they were created, without any further oversight.

On August 24, 2015, the board held a meeting and expanded the transitory records category. Now it included not just correspondence, but other documents such as “interim files” and “recordings used for training purposes.”

The board’s meeting notice and minutes contained no indication of this change, later prompting the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council to file an Open Meetings complaint with the district attorney. The day after the new definition was passed, the Walker administration notified the Wisconsin State Journal that records it previously requested had already been destroyed as “transitory.”

News outlets then reported the Public Record Board’s actions, and the reaction was swift. Critics said the change undermined the records law and the public’s right to know, inviting abuse. They pointed out that records the board defined as “transitory” were actually of significant public interest. There were also concerns that whole categories of electronic communications would be deleted as “transitory.” The Public Records Board was flooded with nearly 1,900 emails.

Fortunately, the board listened. At a meeting in January, it rescinded its August decision to expand the definition of “transitory records.”

But the danger has not passed. The old, 2010 definition of “transitory records” is still in place. Records custodians can still immediately delete some correspondence. Comments from board members in January suggested they are resistant to eliminating this category, despite state law suggesting that no records can be instantly deleted. Board president Matt Blessing said the issue would be revisited at a future meeting. The board next convenes on March 7.

Another positive step is a bill being circulated by Democratic lawmakers that would create penalties for destroying public records. As Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca observed, “There’s no recourse if agencies destroy records.” The bill would shore up existing provisions in the law that deter premature destruction of public records.

Let’s hope one or both of these potential fixes advance. Otherwise, Wisconsin’s weak records retention requirements will continue to undermine the public’s 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. Christa Westerberg is an attorney at Bender Westerberg LLC in Madison, and co-vice president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council .

 
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