Last year on July 2, the state Legislature launched a sneak attack on Wisconsin’s open records law, effectively seeking to exempt legislators from its reach. That effort died following a huge public backlash. But some lawmakers, it’s clear, remain actively hostile to the state’s tradition of open government.
A Wisconsin court of appeals has finally put to rest some of the questions over what information must be withheld under the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, or DPPA. Its recent decision ends years of confusion in a way that squares with the state’s traditions of openness — and with common sense.
Two years ago, the Fond du Lac School District unveiled new guidelines requiring administrative review and approval before the publication of any student media. The reaction by students was swift, democratic and effective. Within days, they had publicized the change online, presented their case at a school board meeting, appeared on local media, and gathered several thousand signatures on a petition calling for student publications to be returned to the students. Over the next several months, they highlighted the district’s use of these guidelines to block the publication of particular photos and information. These efforts succeeded.
Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of open government and the people’s right to know, got an unexpected and welcome beam of hope in mid-March when Gov. Scott Walker issued an executive order directing state agencies to speed up responses to public records requests and to track them to show their performance.
Among the many remarkable things about the defeat of the proposed overhaul of the Wisconsin Public Records Law over the July 4 weekend last summer was the way the media, open government groups, advocacy organizations on the left and right, and the public coalesced to point out how ill-conceived the idea was.
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.
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.