Open Records Law Under Attack for Some Utterly Known Reason

“In recognition of the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the public policy of this state that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them. Further, providing 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. To that end, ss. 19.32 to 19.37 shall be construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access, consistent with the conduct of governmental business. The denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied.”

-Wisconsin State Open Records Law

Well, we can just about set fire to that…

The Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee passed a package of legislation on Thursday that would cut into the kinds of information that the public can access regarding the actions of public officials.

The GOP plan would limit public records requests for lawmakers’ communications with their staff and for drafting records of legislation after it’s been introduced. It would also exempt a host of records created by the Walker administration, state agencies and local governments and put new limits on public access to information about dismissed criminal charges in some instances.

The measure would also give lawmakers a broad legal privilege that would allow them to refrain from releasing records when they are sued and bar their current and former staff from disclosing information legislators wanted kept private.

Bill Maher did a rant the other week about how it is illegal in seven states to film inside of a slaughterhouse. The logic was that when people saw things like diseased animals being jammed into the food supply, it led to unbridled outrage and one of the largest beef recalls in U.S. history. So, naturally, the solution wasn’t to improve conditions, but rather to keep people from seeing what was happening there. Don’t solve the problem, but rather eliminate access to information about the problem.

Republicans in this state aren’t the only ones to slam their dicks in car doors lately, but for some reason, we only seem to find out about it when they do when someone files an open records request. That’s how we found out that the Walker administration was full of crap about a “drafting error” leading to the attempted assassination of the Wisconsin Idea. It’s how we found out that Walker’s staff at the county level was running a secret email system through his office. It’s also how we found out that Walker apparently believes Jews firebomb each other as a greeting.

It’s not just Republicans, however, who are stupid and deserve to be called out. Open records got us the Tomah VA issue and Tammy Baldwin’s apparent lack of engagement. It’s how we find out the Chris Abele is doing all sorts of fun things around the city of Milwaukee.

I have told students for years that while people have an uncanny ability to lie to your face, documents will almost always tell you the truth. It is access to those documents that makes us feel safe and secure (as much as we can) when we look at what our politicians are doing. To help the “real Americans” understand this, think about how you feel about having access to a gun. You don’t always have to use it and you hope using it won’t lead to a bad outcome, but simply having it makes you feel secure and that no one will be able to take advantage of you. That’s how open records work for those of us in journalism.

When people feel as though they will not be caught, they become emboldened. If you posted speed limit signs all over the highway, but everyone knew that there were no police out there, it’s likely that I-94 would become the Autobahn-meets-Death-Race. Simply seeing a squad parked on the side of the road has every knucklehead who thinks the gas pedal doesn’t work unless it’s on the floorboard punching the brake pedal. Lawmakers are tired of what little media oversight still exists messing with their ability to do what they want in secret before putting on a false face in public.

Government officials have tried for years to limit access through a variety of scummy dodges. In 2011, Gov. Deadeyes took to the airwaves and professed to have received 25,000 emails from constituents, most of which favored his stripping of union rights. The media immediately called bullshit on that and filed a request for the emails. Walker balked. Then it was “Hey, just come on over and look at the emails on this computer we set up for you, complete with our own analysis of what is a “pro” email and what is a “con” email.” The media said no, thanks, we’ll just take copies. Then the whole thing stalled. It wasn’t until AP and the Isthmus filed a lawsuit that the information became public. Turns out, Walker’s math was as bad as his policies.

From declaring that something wasn’t a public record because it might be “embarrassing” to trying to charge several thousand dollars per request, officials have tried everything short of this law to limit the public’s right to know. During my time as a media adviser, a kid put in an open records request for information that someone on a search committee had stupidly declared “open to all.” The university freaked out when we got our hands on it and immediately tried to slam the lid on Pandora’s Box. When we pushed back, the university cited an arcane part of state law that made no sense to us until we sought legal representation. Turns out, the university was claiming that the information was not “public” in the sense of being able to be published but rather “an internal memo” that was only to be shared at the university, which had a student base of almost 20,000 and thousands more faculty and staff.

I even had my own run-in with the Walker administration with something like this. After becoming governor, he claimed he would be the most transparent governor we’ve ever had. OK, I figured, let’s see how he did as county executive. I did an open records request for all the open records requests he had received as Milwaukee’s county exec and the outcome of those requests. It took the people more than a month to get back to me and when they did, I got a letter that was exactly as stupid as you would imagine. The official in the county office explained that immediately upon the completion of Walker’s term, all of his records were boxed up and shipped to an off-site storage area. They are uncertain as to where these documents are and had no idea as to how much time it would take to recover them. However, if I wanted to send a check for $681.72, they would begin their search. I gave up because I really didn’t care about the records, but the response to the request itself spoke volumes.

One last thing to consider: This law, which passed the committee along party lines, was included in this set of legislation because at least one legislator wanted it. Usually when you think something is important, you come forward and claim it as your own. In this case, however, no one will say who included this rule. The co-chairs won’t reveal it, others are doing the “no comment” thing and no single legislator has stepped forward to say, “It’s my brilliant idea and here’s why.” The only way to find out who did this would be to force the legislators’ hands via a series of open records requests.

The exact kinds of requests this law will ban.

4 thoughts on “Open Records Law Under Attack for Some Utterly Known Reason

  1. If I’m reading the various newspaper articles correctly, the law would be retroactive to July 1, the day before the motion was introduced.

    Which means that the public may never find out whose idea this was.

  2. Amazing! Self-writing legislation strikes again. Well, the proposed law would seem to be in conflict with the older Open Records Law. I’m sure the courts of the great state of Wisconsin will rule that the legislature has overstepped its authority, right? I mean, “nation of laws” and all that?

  3. LBJ was reportedly adamant about vetoing the original FOIA legislation in 1966, but was only persuaded to sign it after his advisors repeatedly assured him that there were sufficiently vague safeguards in it and that it would make him look good, legacy-wise.

    Even today, the government, at all levels, continues to think that citizens’ privacy is not a right, and that government secrecy is a necessity, which effectively turns the foundation of the principle of self-governance upside-down. At the state level, which is largely absent any considerations of national security, any attempt at hiding the doings of the government can only be seen as fundamentally dishonest, since those efforts must be seen as either hiding wrongdoing or escaping embarrassment (not coincidentally, those are the same two conditions at the federal level for which classification of documents is not warranted).

    In the case of Wisconsin under Walker, the presumption must be that this attempt to weaken the state’s open records law is to hide criminal behavior, because it’s impossible for this bunch to feel embarrassment about anything.

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