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State views: Wisconsin public servants shouldn't stall on open-records requests

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Bill Lueders
August 8, 2013

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 Wisconsin Open Records Law does not allow a requester's motives to be taken into account.

Archer, in one email, relayed that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Walker's Democratic rival for governor, was taking three months to even acknowledge the receipt of records requests. In another, she said her sense from Walker's campaign manager “is that we should be operating one step above ignoring them.”

Has it come to this? That public officials in Wisconsin are in a kind of backward race with each other to see who can take the longest to answer records requests?

That may be. Delays are a growing problem for records requesters in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council recently updated its online list of “Open Government Problem Areas” and put “Long waits” at the top.

Some records custodians take much longer than others and may treat requesters differently. Delays may be indicative of disfavor, which is disappointing.

The national People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says UW-Madison took until late July to complete a records request PETA made in January and paid for in February. The university is seeking a blanket exemption from the law for certain research records.

Earlier this year, I reported that the state Department of Administration took 352 days to satisfy one records request—coincidentally concerning Archer, who became a top DOA official until abruptly resigning in September 2011, shortly before her Madison home was raided by the FBI (long story).

An analysis showed that DOA, on average, took 24 days to answer the more than 200 requests it received in the first half of 2012. Requests from businesses were answered in an average of 17 days; those from media took an average of 56 days.

Political and advocacy groups also experienced longer waits, the analysis found.

The Wisconsin Open Records Law states that custodians should handle records requests “as soon as practicable and without delay.” The state Attorney General's Office, which has statutory authority to interpret and enforce the law, advises that most simple requests should receive a response within 10 working days.

But beyond that, the office has not wanted to press the issue of how long is too long. In 2009, it told a requester that it was unable to say whether the 2 months he had waited for records he paid $700 for was “unreasonable,” since the request may have been time-consuming.

Pretend to read my lips: Two and a half months is too long.

Yes, responding to records requests takes staff resources and time. But the law specifically instructs government officials in Wisconsin that providing access to records “is declared to be an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of officers and employees.”

In other words, “whenever we get around to it” is not good enough.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Bill Lueders is the group's president.



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