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.
Should enforcement of Wisconsin’s open records and open meetings laws depend on individual citizens having to file often costly and protracted lawsuits? That is one option prescribed under these laws, and those who prevail in such cases can recover attorney’s fees. But the laws also contain provisions intended to help people resolve disputes in a cheaper and less complicated way: Citizens can ask the state attorney general or county district attorney to sue a government authority, and any person can seek advice from the attorney general.
As part of national Sunshine Week, March 16-22, the columnist wants to reflect on the importance of journalists and others being more than mere spectators in the tug of war that perpetually plays out over these issues.
Apparently, many of the hundreds of open records requests being made of Walker’s county office were going to the Walker campaign for review. Clearly, these were all public records and the campaign should have had no involvement whatsoever in their review or release.
On July 30, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on newly released emails between Scott Walker’s campaign staff and county aides in 2010, back when the future governor was Milwaukee county executive. One email was from Cindy Archer, then a top county aide, to Walker and his campaign staff, advising that “we may be responding too quickly” to open records requests regarding a county parking structure collapse that killed a 15-year-old boy. The requests were from the state Democratic Party and the campaign of Walker’s GOP primary opponent, which presumably wanted to use the tragedy to impugn Walker. That’s a pretty low motivation — Walker, in a draft statement, aptly called it “disgusting” — but the state’s Open Records Law does not allow a requester’s motives to be taken into account.