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Local officials rarely fight open records requests

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ANN MARIE AMES
March 15, 2010
— The short walk from the Gazette newsroom to the Rock County Courthouse felt like a trip to my doom.

Or at least to a stern talking to.


Rock County Administrator Craig Knutson personally had invited me to meet with him, Corporation Counsel Jeff Kuglitsch and acting Human Services Director Lori Pope. The three were going to give me copies of former Planning Director Scott Heinig's personnel records that I had requested under the Wisconsin Open Records Law.


I thought they also were going to try to talk me out of writing any more stories about department heads resigning from the county.


But, after some polite chitchat, Knutson handed me the records. He explained what I could expect to find in the envelope and said to call him if I had questions.


After a quick visit, I headed back to the newsroom with the documents and a $30 bill for copies.


From what I could tell, county officials sincerely wanted to make good on their recent pledge to cooperate with the Gazette's open records requests.


That friendly meeting came two months after the county released copies of documents related to an investigation of former Human Services Director John Becker, who resigned Sept. 25.


Getting the Becker records hadn't been so simple.


The Gazette got the Heinig documents in early February after a Jan. 8 request. A second request was filed Jan. 14 after Kuglitsch called asking for a clarification.


Such clarifications are common for Gazette reporters. Several reporters have gotten phone calls from public officials asking for simple changes to records requests. Such requests usually are made by phone and are a matter of professional courtesy.


But Rock County didn't ask for clarification when the Gazette four times requested documents generated in the Becker investigation.


The requests

-- Sept. 28—The Gazette asked Pope for copies of complaints filed since July 2008 against Becker and copies of reports generated by any investigations of him.


On Oct. 1, Kuglitsch wrote back saying no complaints or other reports existed in the human resources department.


-- Oct. 6—The Gazette sent a second request to Pope, this time leaving out the word "complaints."


Pope responded and included a copy of an e-mail from Becker to Knutson and Kuglitsch as well as Becker's letter of resignation. No mention was made of an investigation in either document, even though sources by then had told the Gazette that the county had hired former Corporation Counsel Tom Schroeder to conduct the investigation.


-- Oct. 28—The Gazette sent a third letter requesting "copies of all records about Mr. Becker generated by county employees, Mr. Schroeder, or others" subject to open records laws.


On Nov. 12, Pope released Becker's 73-page personnel file. It included performance reviews—all at or above expectations—and copies of continuing-education certificates.


It contained no mention of an investigation.


-- Nov. 17—The Gazette addressed a fourth letter—nearly identical to the third—to Kuglitsch. The Gazette requested "copies of all records in your custody or the custody of any other county employee or department about Mr. Becker… "


On Nov. 30, Kuglitsch released two documents that revealed the investigation: a contract hiring Schroeder to probe "the conduct and/or alleged misconduct of John Becker" and an invoice from Schroeder's office.


The documents had been in a file in Kuglitsch's office.


It's still not clear why the county was investigating Becker. He resigned before the investigation was complete, so no report was generated.


Knutson and Kuglitsh maintain that Kuglitsh followed the letter and the spirit of the law the records weren't released after the first three requests.


Both men told the newspaper that the county historically co-operates with reporters and plans to do so in the future.


"It is the county's policy to comply with the open records law fully. I think we've demonstrated that in the past and will in the future," Knutson said.


OPEN RECORDS REQUESTS

The Gazette in the past 12 months filed several requests under the Wisconsin Open Records Law seeking government documents. Some were granted, some were denied and some were granted only after reporters filed repeated requests.


Here is a sample:


March 2009

Recipient: Walworth County Sheriff's Capt. Dana Nigbor and town of Linn attorney David Schiltz


Information requested: A copy of a letter from Walworth County District Attorney Phil Koss regarding a complaint against the Town of Linn Police Department and its alleged mishandling of recovered property. The complaint stemmed from the sale of a lawn tractor. The district attorney decided not to issue charges against the police chief.


Result: Received a copy of the letter from both the sheriff's office and the town attorney, resulting in an April 7 article.


March 2009

Recipient: Village of Darien


Information requested: Documents village attorneys presented to the Darien Village Board about the village's investigation into surveillance cameras in the village police department. The investigation lead to a second investigation into material on department computers.


Result: Thousands of pages of e-mails and photos were released, although the village had to go to court to make it happen. Police Chief Steve DeVoy's attorneys said DeVoy had the right to block the request. But Judge Robert Kennedy agreed with village attorneys that as a department head, DeVoy didn't have the same protections as an "employee" under state law. The Gazette got the documents in April.


July 2009

Recipient: Town of Beloit


Information requested: Documents generated by an investigation of Police Chief John Wilson and two department employees.


Result: The documents included reports from a town administrator and references to a Rock County Sheriff's Office investigation. All the materials were released in a timely manner. The chief and two officers were disciplined.


August 2009

Recipient: Rock County Administrator Craig Knutson, Rock County Human Services Director Charmian Klyve, Rock County Corporation Counsel Jeff Kuglitsch.


Information requested: Documents shared at a meeting between the county administrator and juvenile justice officials.


Result: Documents turned over to the Gazette revealed Rock County juvenile probation officers believed their supervisors were asking them to act unethically and lie in court to get kids released from detention.


The Gazette's reporting led the human services department to seek an external and independent evaluation of its juvenile justice system and its future.


September 2009

Recipient: Rock County Human Services Director Charmian Klyve, Rock County Corporation Counsel Jeff Kuglitsch.


Information requested: Documents related to the internal investigation of allegations about whether juvenile probation officers were told to act unethically or lie in court.


Result: Records released to the Gazette indicated managers never interviewed staff members individually or documented an investigation, despite written complaints that juvenile probation officers were being ordered to lie in court.


The Gazette's reporting led the human services department to seek an external and independent evaluation of its juvenile justice system and its future.


September 2009

Recipient: Rock County Human Services Director Charmian Klyve, Rock County Corporation Counsel Jeff Kuglitsch.


Information requested: Documents related to decisions about whether to hold juveniles in the detention center.


Result: Documents released to the Gazette didn't reveal any information about juvenile intake decisions.


October 2009

Recipient: Whitewater School District Superintendent Suzanne Zentner and Whitewater Police Chief Jim Coan


Information requested: Copies of documents generated by the school district and police department investigation of a racist death threat found scrawled on a boys bathroom stall at the high school in May 2009.


Result: The police department responded with a letter saying the investigation was not complete and the documents would not be released until it was closed. The school district sought clarification of the request. No documents have been released by either the school district or the police department.


Oct. 6, 2009

Recipient: Sheila Reiff, Walworth County clerk of courts


Information requested: Copies of all court orders dated Sept. 1, 2009, or later sealing search warrants and/or search warrant returns.


Result: This request was denied.


November 2009

Recipient: Rock County Assistant Human Resources Director Lori Pope, Rock County Corporation Counsel Jeff Kuglitsch.


Information requested: Documents regarding complaints about the Rock County Coroner's Office or Rock County Coroner Jenifer Keach.


Result: Records released to the Gazette revealed that complaints had been filed against Rock County Coroner Jenifer Keach, accusing her of sexual discrimination, a hostile work environment and inappropriate behavior.


The Gazette's reporting led Rock County officials to consider appointing a medical examiner instead of having an elected coroner's office. The decision has not been made.


November 2009

Recipient: Walworth County Sheriff's Capt. Dana Nigbor and Geneva Town Clerk Debra Kirch


Information requested: A copy of the complaint filed against a town of Geneva police officer alleging he had sexual contact with a town employee in a squad car while on duty in August 2009.


Result: The town clerk responded with a letter indicating the complaint would not be available until 12 days after the people named in the complaint were notified of the request. A copy of the complaint and related police reports from the sheriff's office eventually were released, resulting in a Nov. 17 article.


Dec. 8, 2009

Recipient: Wisconsin Department of Regulation and Licensing


Information requested: Complaints and related records pertaining to the investigation of David J. Betts that ultimately led to the surrender of his license to act as a funeral director.


Result: Nearly 380 pages of complaints that explain why Betts, of Elkhorn, had his license to act as a funeral director revoked.


Dec. 8, 2009

Recipient: Suzi Hagstrom, labor/employee relations director at Walworth County Human Resources Department


Information requested: Copy of the personnel file of John P. Turzenski, former nursing home administrator at the Lakeland Health Care Center.


Result: Documents received contained information about Turzenski's dismissal from his position as nursing home administration.



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