Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

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Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

Action Alert on Bill to Suppress Court Records in Wrongful Convictions

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The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is issuing an Action Alert on AB-460, a bill whose main purpose is to raise the compensation level for state victims of wrongful imprisonment. The bill unanimously passed the state Assembly on Tuesday.

Our concern is with how the bill would affect public access to case recordsmuch more significantly than has beeen publicly acknowledged. The bill as passed would not just require the removal of information on wrongful convictions from the state's online records system, or WCCA, as The Associated Press reported in October. It would actually completely shut off access to court records related to wrongful convictions.

According to the Legislative Reference Bureau analysis, "Under the bill, if a person's conviction for a crime is reversed, set aside, or vacated on grounds consistent with the person's innocence, and the person is ordered released from prison by a trial court, the court is required to grant the person, upon request [remedies including] sealing of all records related to his or her conviction."

The actual bill language calls for: "Sealing of all records related to the case. Records sealed under this section shall be accessible to the person but may not be available for public inspection or through the consolidated court automation program case management system."

This is a sweeping and radical requirement, one that will dramatically compromise the ability of media and the public to examine what went wrong in cases in which things are known to have gone terribly wrong.

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council opposes any reduction in public access to court records of wrongful convictions. As the Wisconsin State Journal noted in a Dec. 18 editorial , which assumed that the impact would be only to online court records:

"Rather than hiding its terrible mistakes from the public, the state should add information to electronic public records so it’s perfectly clear the individuals were victims, not criminals. It’s important for citizens to know their state justice system sometimes gets verdicts wrong."

Such concerns are greatly magnified when applied to all court records regarding wrongful convictions. The Council calls on advocates for open government to oppose this effort to protect the perpetrators of wrongful convictions from accountability. We urge that the Senate remove or amend this language, if and when it takes the bill up.

 

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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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.

 

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.

 
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