The Decline In Transparency In WI State Government

There’s been some new troubling nonsense out of Madison about transparency in government. Apparently several people have their noses out of joint about what Governor Tony Evers will release under the open records laws while GOP legislators spend tax dollars trying to avoid doing exactly the same thing.

First, I wholly support open records laws. There is no reason that Wisconsin governing bodies and governing executives can’t provide any documents under their control to the media or the public. But it is also important for the media and public to clearly request the documents they want to see…I don’t support fishing (particularly trolling) expeditions either.

First up, we have the confusion around a request to the governor’s office for a single day’s worth of emails, in and out, of the office.

Gov. Tony Evers’ aides won’t release a day’s worth of the governor’s emails saying the request is too burdensome, even though Evers himself said the public should see them and that he rarely sends a single email per day.

Advocates for government transparency and public record attorneys say the governor’s office is not following the spirit of the state’s public records law after aides denied a reporter’s request for one day of Evers’ emails, saying the request was not specific enough, according to a FOX6 report published Sunday.

State law says requests for public records must have a “reasonable limitation as to subject matter or length of time.” Evers’ assistant legal counsel Erin Deeley cited this portion of the law in denying release of the governor’s emails from June 14 because the reporter’s request did not narrow the search for emails on that day to a specific topic.

Evers was asked about his office’s denial at a recent press conference by the FOX6 reporter who submitted the request. Evers said he wasn’t aware of his staff’s decision and that he believed the public should be able to see one day’s worth of his emails.

Out of 317 requests for records Evers’ office has received since January, aides have denied eight requests on the same basis, according to the governor’s office. 

The articles I’ve read say the Fox6 (that would be the Milwaukee affiliate of Fox) reported this. And an op ed piece later said that they were also the requestors. They should know how to frame an open records request. If they are planning a day in the life of the new governor…they need to find a better way to go about it!

But I’d tend to agree with the governor’s office…this is particularly broad and ill-defined. And although the governor himself doesn’t have an issue with it, I do. Anyone requesting information should be able to define what they are looking for to some point of specificity. Particularly if it’s a media outlet. Otherwise it feels like fishing or even harassment. Despite his protestations, I imagine there is a lot of email traffic in and out of the governors office every day. I’d have an issue keeping track of my emails and they aren’t as complex as anything the governor receives.

Now Bill Lueders has an issue with this. He is president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council so he has some standing and a major understanding of the issues involved. I have a lot of respect for him but I do think he’s wrong here.

The denial is similar to one that came to light recently in a report by Fox6 News in Milwaukee. In that case, Evers’ office denied a request from reporter Amanda St. Hilaire for a single day’s worth of emails to and from Evers. The office’s open records lawyer, Erin Deeley, possibly without consulting Evers (who seemed genuinely surprised when asked about the denial at a press conference) argued that the request was unreasonably broad because it contained no specifics as to subject matter.

I think both cases leave Evers’ office on thin ice. Wisconsin’s open records law contains a broad presumption of maximum public access. Evers’ office should not be looking for ways to say “No” to records requesters; it should be trying to find ways to say yes.

Evers’ office claimed, in response to St. Hilaire’s requests, that the lack of specificity would cause horrific consequences.

If you sift through the articles linked about you’ll get a number of other views from both sides of the spectrum.

But then you also get this about the GOP princes of darkness:

The decision to withhold the governor’s emails comes four years after Republican lawmakers and Walker sought to keep private nearly all records produced by lawmakers and a host of records created by Walker’s administration.

The plan, which was blasted by Democrats, Republicans, the former Republican attorney general, journalists and good government advocates, would have kept private communication between lawmakers and their staff members. It was quickly abandoned after massive public backlash.

State lawmakers also have exempted themselves from the state records law, allowing themselves to legally delete public records that state agencies are required to keep available for the public to access. 

And then there’s this from one of a crown prince of darkness, Rep. John Nygren. Lawmaker sues the governor for withholding information that the representative previously voted to allow electeds to…withhold!

Rep. John Nygren, a co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget committee from Marinette, asked Evers in August for documents under the public records law mentioning GOP lawmakers and mental health services for farmers.

… but Evers’ attorney denied the request to the governor’s office, arguing it was overly broad. 

Nygren sued on Tuesday in Dane County Circuit Court. The case has been assigned to Judge Frank Remington. 

Evers’ attorney Erin Deeley denied the request as too broad, writing that it would apply to everyone in Evers’ office.  

Now, I am going to side with Rep. Nygren on this one. He deserves to receive the documents he requested. But I am also going to suggest that he is being forced to lay in the bed that he made…given the animosity and obstruction around the release of the farm mental health funds. But even then, the documents should be released to his office. OTOH: instead of suing he could have resubmitted the request with more detail…but that wouldn’t be the GOP’s M.O. right now.

But then there is this issue around his brethren, Rep. Nygren isn’t party to this one.

Taxpayers had to pay more than $25,000 in legal bills this year after Republican lawmakers refused to turn over electronic copies of their correspondence under the state’s open records law.

Sheila Plotkin of Madison said she was bothered that GOP lawmakers racked up legal bills to fight her records requests instead of promptly turning over digital copies of their correspondence.

A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester didn’t respond to questions about how he and some of his colleagues handled Plotkin’s requests.

Late last year Plotkin asked all legislators for emails and other correspondence regarding the lame-duck laws Republicans passed to limit the power of the governor just before Democrat Tony Evers took office.

Most provided electronic copies of their records, as she requested, but 14 Assembly Republicans — including Vos and Majority Leader Jim Steineke of Kaukauna — said they would provide her with printed copies of their documents.

So not only did a large number of Republican legislators refuse to obey the law, they used outside representation and spent additional state tax revenues to do it. And this latter issue refers back to their lame duck laws limiting the authority of the governor and attorney general…but giving the legislature increased authority to sue and interfere and to use outside legal representation to do so

Now to be totally fair, the Madison 14 didn’t totally refuse to provide the documents…they refused to provide them via electronic means…instead insisting on providing physical documents. Certainly something that would take them longer…BU-U-U-T…would be considerably more expensive for the requestor:

They asked her to pay about $1,200 for about 7,900 pages of documents, but also told her she could go through the printed records in a state office and pay for only the copies she wanted to keep.

Plotkin, 81, said she could not afford to buy the copies and couldn’t visit the state office building for health reasons. They didn’t reverse course and in April she sued.

So they are guilty of a stalling tactic at minimum and obstruction at most.

I think we are starting to get a goose/gander comparison here.

It is probably prime time to update open records laws for the 21st Century…regarding how and where requestors can get documents..and the means and time for the providers to send out the requested information.


Related Articles