Wisconsin's Open Records Law begins with a declaration: "In recognition of the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the public policy of this state that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them."
Note what it says: "All persons." Not just the news media. Not just professional with an interest in public records. Not just lawmakers and litigants.
In fact, among the law's most important users are ordinary citizens tracking particular areas of public policy or checking up on officials and institutions. In my role with the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, I often field questions from citizens on how to use the law.
Here's my Top Ten list of things to keep in mind:
- Look for the posted policy. Under Wisconsin statute 19.34, all state and local public offices must "prominently display" a notice explaining their records policy. It should list hours of availability, official custodians, and costs. While not every public office is in compliance with this law, it's often a good place to start.
- It never hurts to ask. The law says record requests can be made orally, and for many records - meeting minutes, proposed legislation, official correspondence - an oral request is all it takes. But if that doesn't work …
- Put it in writing. Under the law, records custodians must give a written reply to all written requests. They must either provide the record or state their reasons for withholding it. This is their only chance to come up with arguments against release. They can't add new ones later if the denial is challenged.
- You can remain anonymous but … the law says requesters do not have to identify themselves or say why they want to see a record. But not giving a name can create logistical problems, especially for written requests. In cases where anonymity is desired, you may have to call the custodian's attention to state Statute 19.35(1)(i). But in most cases …
- Don't be afraid. The Open Records Law clearly says the public is entitled to public information and custodians are required to provide it. People unaccustomed to obtaining public records are often bashful. Don't be. It's what the law intended, and it helps keep the system honest. That said, please …
- Be polite. Usually, the person on the other side of the counter is a conscientious public employee. Some don't have much experience with records requests, and may be reluctant to do what the law requires. But it never makes sense to be belligerent. Hold your ground, but hold your tongue, too.
- Be specific. Always be as precise as possible about what records you seek. Asking for "all traffic citations issued in the city of Milwaukee" may prove costly and unwieldy, especially if you really just want speeding tickets in the 3800 block of North Avenue during the first week of June.
- Don't pay a lot for this record. Custodians may charge the "actual, necessary and direct cost" of making copies, and in some cases (when over $50) of locating records. Except for circuit court records, where state imposes a rip-off rate of $1.25 per page, you should generally pay no more than a quarter per page. Plus you can always ask to just look at records without getting copies.
- Use a boilerplate. For written requests, it never hurts to cite the Open Records Law and remind custodians of their responsibilities. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council's website (wisfoic.org) contains an open records form letter, and a link to the law itself. But please keep in mind that …
- You don't have to be an expert. The law says decisions on records access "shall be construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access." Yes, there are statutory and case-law exemptions, and legitimate reasons for withholding some records. But requester doesn't have to know what these are; it's the custodian's burden to either release the record, or give a good reason not to.
The Open Records Law is like a muscle: The more it is used, the stronger it becomes. The law belongs to all of us, and it's our collective responsibility to make sure it stays strong.
Your Right to Know is produced by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, devoted to protecting public access to meeting and records. Bill Lueders is the group's president.