April 17, 2010

Guest column for Sunshine Week

March 14-20 is Sunshine Week. It is important to recognize this national initiative which focuses attention on the importance of open government and the public’s right to know.

Citizen oversight of the workings of government is essential to democratic government and our confidence in it. Citizen access to public records and meetings of governmental bodies is a vital aspect of this principle. As the state’s chief law enforcement officer, I am deeply committed to promoting compliance with Wisconsin’s open meetings and public records laws.

Educating the public and public employees is the best way to enforce these laws. That is why since I’ve been Attorney General, the Department of Justice has committed increased resources to helping civic leaders, government employees and the public better understand their rights and responsibilities.

In 2007 and 2008, the Department hosted eleven free seminars across the state to promote public awareness of and compliance with the open meetings and public records laws. Over one thousand five hundred citizens and public officials registered for the seminars, more than twice the attendance from the previous two year period. In 2009 the Department hosted 19 free seminars across the state training over 1,800 citizens. For the first time the Department offered many of these training opportunities via videoconferencing. Recently, the Department hosted the first ever specialized training session for members of Wisconsin’s law enforcement community on Wisconsin’s Public Records laws. The specialized training was geared specifically to the context of law enforcement. Two hundred and sixty-eight law enforcement professionals participated in this specialized training.

As well, our office provides informative compliance guides on the open meetings and public records laws. The publications answer recurring questions of citizens and public employees alike and are posted on the Department’s website to download, copy, and share.

Every day the Department helps people seeking to understand their rights and obligations under the open meetings and public records laws. This is the one area where, by statute, the Department is authorized to give legal advice to citizens. Since I became Attorney General, our office has answered thousands of requests for advice and guidance. Department attorneys assisting in this way report increased compliance as a direct result.

As principal statewide interpreter of the open meetings and public records laws, I represent the state’s interest in the orderly and proper development of the open meetings and public records laws. In State ex rel. Buswell v. Tomah Area School District, the Department went before the Wisconsin Supreme Court and urged reversal of a bright-line rule that permitted an almost unlimited degree of generality when giving notice of the subject matter of a meeting. The court adopted the Department’s approach. As a result, Wisconsin citizens are entitled to receive more meaningful notice than was required under previously decided case law.

I welcome the opportunity that Sunshine Week provides to focus on the need for and importance of open government and access to information about the workings of your government. I cannot overstate the importance of full compliance of the state’s open meetings and public records laws. To that end, I invite all citizens and government entities to contact the Department of Justice whenever our legal service in offering advice in this area can be of help to you.