April: Walker’s order on records is welcome

By April Barker Your Right To Know - 2017 Columns
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In March, for the second year in a row, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker issued an executive order regarding the state’s open records law.

It notes that “the American republic and the State of Wisconsin were founded on the basis of broad accountability of government to the people.” And it declares that “the free flow of information from the government to the people instills trust and confidence in our democracy and ensures that our government is accessible, accountable, and open.”

The order directs state agencies to track and post their record response times and, like last year’s order , gives procedural guidance that should make it easier for citizens to request and receive records.

It instructs agencies to charge no more than 15 cents per page for provided photocopies and to charge no more than $30 per hour for government employees’ time spent locating records. It directs that agency meeting notices be posted in a centralized location on Wisconsin.gov, making these more accessible to the public. And it prescribes records training “for all employees and members of all boards, councils, and commissions.”

The governor issued his executive order just as media outlets were analyzing state agencies’ performance since the 2016 order. The Wisconsin State Journal reported that state agencies were responding more quickly to public records requests since Walker issued the 2016 executive order, though some agencies performed better than others. Overall, the paper found, the average records response time has fallen from 13 to nine days.

USA Today Network-Wisconsin also compared state agency public records requests and responses and found that some agencies took considerably longer than others to fulfill requests, even after the 2016 executive order directed that small and straightforward requests be fulfilled within 10 days whenever practicable and directed that sufficient staff be allocated to ensure that all requests be fulfilled as soon as practicable.

According to this analysis, the governor’s office received fewer requests but took longer to respond than other agencies. Like other agencies whose response times were on the slow end, the governor’s office blamed the complexity of the requests for the delays in responding.

With greater scrutiny, there may be more occasion for agencies to be called upon to explain poor performance. This is the way that government is supposed to operate: The public is supposed to know when government is operating well, and when it is not. Without transparency, there cannot be accountability.

To that end, the 2016 and 2017 executive orders are welcome steps in the right direction. A year from now, we hope there will be fresh outside analysis of state agencies’ performance and still more guidance from the governor’s office regarding concrete improvements that can be made.

A word to local government officials: There’s no need to wait to follow the governor’s lead in seeking to improve records and open meetings practices. If the state can challenge itself to do better, then local government leaders, individually and through collective associations and groups, can and should do the same.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. April Barker, the Council’s co-vice president, is an attorney with Schott, Bublitz & Engel of Brookfield.