By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – Some journalists I know, yours truly included, have a less-than-affectionate name for the state Department of Administration.
Dead on Arrival.
It’s a play on the state administrative agency’s initials, DOA. For journalists or citizens frustrated with the agency’s glacial pace in responding or utter lack of response at times to public records requests, the nick-name feels altogether fitting.
Wisconsin Reporter, like many of our Capitol press corps brethren, has found its requests often buried beneath a mountain of bureaucracy or apathy, our calls and emails seeking information or comment unanswered, our open records filings ignored or long delayed.
DOA might tell you, as it has told Wisconsin Reporter, that as a clearinghouse it handles a lot of public information requests every week, and sometimes there is a backlog.
Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, says his organization has increasingly experienced hindrances to public information – from D.O.A., several other state agencies, the governor’s office and the Legislature.
“We’ve run into increasing resistance to granting access to public records,” said McCabe, whose Madison-based watchdog group bills itself as “working for clean, open and honest government.”
“There used to be a culture in Wisconsin that governed agency behavior; it established a fact of life that the public had the right to see government records and those records would be made available promptly. Over the past decade, I have seen more foot-dragging, more delays, and it has been more difficult to get open records filled.”
While Wisconsin may have some of the strongest open record laws on the books, McCabe contends enforcement — from the state attorney general on down — is no longer a priority.
Now, an Assembly bill sponsored by several Republicans and a Democrat would amend state law to allow government entities to charge a fee for the work of cutting out confidential information from open records requests. Put another way, the government may charge a journalist, a watchdog group, a citizen more money for less information.
McCabe and an army of open records advocates see the bill an encumbrance to the free flow of government information. For McCabe and others concerned about the current state of transparency in local and state government, the bill is like salt in a wound.
The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council hates this legislation, considering it a “serious threat to the public’s ability to obtain public information. It will allow custodians to make some records unaffordable to some requesters, and it will inevitably lead to abuse.”
Mark Graul, Republican strategist and owner of Arena Strategy Group, a public affairs group lobbying against Assembly Bill 26 on behalf of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, said the legislation is too broad.
“The bill is written so open-ended that it could be problematic for anyone looking to get their hands on public information,” Graul said.
Proponents of the legislation say the change is needed, that government agencies are spending a lot of time and taxpayer money redacting legally prohibited information from requested records.
Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said open government is important, but it doesn’t come without a cost.
“Reporters ask for a lot of stuff. The longer it takes to redact, one line at a time, that costs money,” Thompson said. “The question is, who should bear the costs. Right now, taxpayers are bearing that. With levy limits tighter and reduced state aid, we have to do more with less.”
Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, said he wrote the bill in response to a city councilman in his district who complained the city’s open records budget doubled when it was forced to accommodate a citizen who made repeated records requests.
“In most cases, from what we’ve reviewed, there would be little or no cost to the average request, and the person in charge of the agency could decide to charge or not charge,” Bies said. He added that the bill might check someone from going on a “fishing expedition” for information, as was the case, Bies said, during the debate over Wisconsin’s controversial collective bargaining reform bill in 2011.
While public entities may charge “certain fees” to fill open records requests, the Wisconsin Supreme Court in Milwaukee Journal v. City of Milwaukee held that public records law does not permit an authority to charge for the cost of redacting confidential information from records.
Bies’ bill amends the public records law, “to provide that an authority may impose a fee upon a requester for the actual, necessary, and direct cost of deleting, redacting, or separating information this is not subject to a disclosure.”
The state’s open record law puts a premium on access to government information.
“…(P)roviding persons with such information is declared to be an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of officers and employees whose responsibility it is to provide such information,” the law states.
Opponents of the bill say the language leaves wide discretion of power over the costs of information shielding, ultimately hindering access to citizens.
McCabe, whose organization plans to be on record against the bill at a hearing slated for Wednesday morning, said the proposal would further undercut Wisconsin’s law assuring open, transparent government. McCabe advised Bies that there is an easier way to reduce the number of open record requests made to government entities.
“I would say to Representative Bies that if you conduct public business in a transparent fashion, there will be fewer open records requests,” McCabe said. “This bill will only serve to create more public mistrust and a greater public feeling that something is being hidden from them.”
Contact Matt Kittle at firstname.lastname@example.org
Open records public hearing
The Assembly Committee on Government Operations and State Licensing holds a public hearing at 10 a.m. Wednesday on Assembly Bill 26. Committee members will meet in 225 Northwest at the Capitol. The bill seeks to charge fees for redacting or deleting information in public records.