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.
Two former members of Gov. Scott Walker’s cabinet say the administration has had a policy of communicating official business through private channels. The allegations come as the Walker administration faces criticism for cutting public access to internal text messages and other so-called transitory state records.
Dick Record witnessed first-hand what he says is the “deterioration” of government transparency during his 40-year journalism career in Wisconsin. Record’s concern over this trend motivates him to steadfastly advocate for open government. It is the reason he supports the nonpartisan and nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. “The deterioration of openness has been somewhat appalling in the last few years, particularly because we just don’t have the freedom that we used to,” said Record, a veteran news anchor and station manager in Madison and La Crosse. “It seems like people in public office and state and local government are hiding stuff from us, and for no good reason.”
In recent years, reporters and the public are facing increasing problems with long wait times and high costs for records requests, difficulty obtaining legislative drafts, and improper denials of records, among other setbacks that diminish government accountability.
A provision snuck into the state budget bill by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee would deal a significant blow to open government in Wisconsin. The provision, part of an omnibus motion of changes affecting the University of Wisconsin System, would exempt universities from the rule in place for all other state agencies regarding the naming of finalists for key positions. No longer would they need to identify the five most qualified applicants, or each applicant if there are fewer than five.
An internal investigation found that DOC Sgt. Thomas J. Lukas engaged in “demeaning and harassing behavior” toward inmates at Fox Lake Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in Dodge County. This included an email he sent to another guard making a reference to inmate Antron Kent and another inmate that was determined to be “sexual in nature and inappropriate.”
Updating Wisconsin’s open records law could help clarify the obligations of public officials with respect to emails and other records that exist in electronic form. But it is critical that any updates be guided by the law’s stated and essential purpose: to provide the greatest possible oversight of the actions of government.
“Most people in Wisconsin, including public officials, have grown to appreciate the state’s traditions of open government,” said Bill Lueders, council president. “These awards are meant to encourage this trend.”
This blanket exemption would spare the UW from needing a good reason to deny access to these records, as current law requires. Instead, universities could categorically spurn inquiries from citizens, media and even lawmakers looking into controversial research, potential threats to public safety, conflicts of interest or how tax dollars are spent.
In 2012, a federal appeals court ruled that the village of Palatine, Illinois, may have violated the act by leaving parking tickets, which included personal information, on the windshields of motorists. Some Wisconsin police departments, instructed by their insurers, began redacting personal information from police reports. No other state — not even Illinois, where the Palatine case occurred — adopted this interpretation.
It’s a pretty simple question for a public official: “What exactly do you do with your time?”
Sometimes, the best way to answer that question is to obtain the official’s calendar, through the state’s open records law. In my work as a reporter, I’ve done this for the state treasurer and his staff, who work for an office with few official duties. I’ve also used the monthly calendars of Gov. Scott Walker to plot his travel and track his day-to-day meetings. So when I wanted a better understanding of how the duties of Sheboygan Mayor Mike Vandersteen and Chief Administrative Officer Jim Amodeo overlap, I asked to see their calendars. Amodeo’s response was simply, “Oh, OK.”