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We welcome questions about records, meetings

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J.B. Van Hollen
March 15, 2010

March 14-20 is Sunshine Week. Itís important to recognize this national initiative, which focuses attention on the importance of open government and the publicís right to know.


Citizen oversight of the workings of government is essential to democratic government and our confidence in it. Citizen access to public records and meetings of governmental bodies is a vital aspect of this principle. As the stateís chief law enforcement officer, Iím committed to promoting compliance with Wisconsinís open meetings and public records laws.


Educating the public and public employees is the best way to enforce these laws. Thatís why, since Iíve been attorney general, the Department of Justice has committed increased resources to helping civic leaders, government employees and the public better understand their rights and responsibilities.


In 2007 and 2008, the department hosted 11 free seminars across the state to promote public awareness of and compliance with the open meetings and public records laws. More than 1,500 citizens and public officials registered for the seminars, more than twice the attendance from the previous two-year period.


In 2009, the department hosted 19 free seminars and trained more than 1,800 citizens. For the first time, the department offered many of these opportunities via videoconferencing. Recently, the department hosted the first specialized training session for members of Wisconsinís law enforcement community on Wisconsinís public records law. This specialized training drew 268 law enforcement professionals.


Our office also provides informative compliance guides on the open meetings and public records laws. The publications answer recurring questions of citizens and public employees and are posted on our Web site to download, copy and share.


Every day, the department helps people seeking to understand their rights and obligations under these laws. This is the one area where, by statute, the department is authorized to give legal advice to citizens. Since I became attorney general, our office has answered thousands of requests for advice and guidance. Department attorneys assisting in this way report increased compliance as a direct result.


As principal statewide interpreter of the open meetings and public records laws, I represent the stateís interest in the orderly and proper development of the open meetings and public records laws.


In State ex rel. Buswell v. Tomah Area School District, the department went before the Wisconsin Supreme Court and urged reversal of a bright-line rule that permitted an almost unlimited degree of generality when giving notice of the subject matter of a meeting. The court adopted the departmentís approach.


As a result, Wisconsin citizens are entitled to receive more meaningful notice than was required under previous case law.


I welcome the opportunity that Sunshine Week provides to focus on the need for and importance of open government and access to information about the workings of your government. I cannot overstate the importance of full compliance of our open meetings and public records laws. I invite all citizens and government entities to contact the Department of Justice whenever our advice in this area can be of help to you.


J.B. Van Hollen is Wisconsin attorney general; phone (608) 266-1221; address Room 114 East, state Capitol, Madison, WI 53702.

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