Open Records, Open Meetings: Holding Government Accountable

The Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists sponsored a day-long, 4-session workshop on open government.

Madison Pro Chapter president Mark Pitsch opens the day-long workshop. Also shown, Assistant Attorney General Mary Burke and Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders.

Madison Pro Chapter president Mark Pitsch opens the day-long workshop. Also shown, Assistant Attorney General Mary Burke and Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders.

Wisconsin’s Open Records Law
Listen to the audio recording of this session.

“Our public records law is one of the strongest public access laws in the country,” said Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Mary Burke, in the opening session of SPJ-Madison’s workshop of government accountability on Friday, November 30, 2012. “The law has a presumption of complete public access. But some limits are built into the law.

Bill Lueders, the president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, joined Burke in the opening session. Lueders proclaimed the Declaration of Policy that introduces Wisconsin’s Public Records Law (enacted in 1982), “the four most beautiful sentences in the English language.” He proceeded to read the Declaration:

“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.”

Mary Burke and Bill Lueders

Mary Burke and Bill Lueders

Lueders said that reporters don’t have to know everything about the law. He advised reporters looking for information to make their requests and let the government officials be the experts.

But he also recommended that reporters try informally asking for the information first, or telling the officials what is being sought and asking their advice on what records should be requested. “We are emissaries of the public when we make an open records request, so we have an obligation to be polite,” he said.

The application of the Open Records law to changing technologies such as twitter feeds and texting has been challenging. But Burke said the law’s intent is clear. “Whatever the medium, if public business is being discussed, then there must be access.”

Burke said that locating and redacting information can be a time consuming process for public officials, depending on the size of the request. Lueders said, “We are seeing delays as a huge problem. I’m troubled by how long it takes to get records in many cases.”

Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law
Listen to the audio recording of this session.

“The Open Meetings Law is different from the Open Records Law in the way it developed,” said Assistant Attorney General Bruce Olson. While the Open Records Law has been fine-tuned by litigation that interprets the statutes, the Open Meetings Law has been defined mainly through Attorney General opinions which advise governmental bodies.

Bruce Olsen and Christa Westerberg

Bruce Olsen and Christa Westerberg

Attorney Christa Westerberg of McGillivray, Westerberg and Bender spoke on exemptions to the Open Meetings Law. She noted that governmental bodies often mistakenly transgress the law in an attempt to avoid controversy. “The courts have said that on controversial issues you need the <most transparency,” she said.

Olson was questioned on whether it was permissible for an attendee at a closed meeting to discuss details of the meeting with a reporter. “A closed session is not a gag,” Olson said. “You don’t need to substitute your own diligence for their lack of it.”

Using the Open Records Law
Listen to the audio recording of this session.

Two veteran investigative reporters shared their award-winning techniques in using the Open Records Law. “Anything on a piece of paper is a record,” said Dee Hall, of the Wisconsin State Journal. “I have literally asked for sticky notes.”

Patrick Marley and Dee Hall

Patrick Marley and Dee Hall

Patrick Marley, of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said, “I like to request text messages a lot because I don’t think a lot of public officials are thinking of them in terms of open records.”

The two reporters differed on making requests for email records. Hall often makes requests including all emails “mentioning or regarding” her search topic. Marley tends to ask for more specific search terms. “I want the records back quickly to see what I’ve got and then go from there,” he said.

Marley said, “Be willing to modify your requests,” and Hall added, “Officials almost always ask for clarification.”

Jina Jonen, Jennifer Sloan Lattis, and Bill Cosh

Jina Jonen, Jennifer Sloan Lattis, and Bill Cosh

Custodians Respond
Listen to the audio recording of this session.

Three officials, who have dealt with a lot of Open Records requests, closed out the daylong session.

Jennifer Sloan Lattis, senior system legal counsel for the University of Wisconsin System, said that the most common request she gets is for Bret Beliema’s contract. She refers all athletic information requests to the UW Athletic Department. “You guys [in the media] are usually well behaved and don’t ask for things we don’t want to give you,” she said.

Lattis said that attorneys and political organizations were more demanding on her time than the media. She expressed her openness to working with media to answer information requests. “Really what I want is to manage my workload,” she said.

Bill Cosh, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said that he was a strong believer in openness. “The advice I give to our lawyers and staff is that if it’s a public record, it goes out,” he said. “I view reporters as customers and we want to give good public service.”

Cosh advised reporters to be sympathetic to the volume of requests that many state agencies receive. “The amount of requests we get from the media is small compared to what we get from the public or from legal cases,” he said. His best tip for a faster response: “Keep it from becoming a formal request in the first place. Just tell me what you want and I’ll try to get it for you.”

Jina Jonen, in-house counsel and human resources director for the Oregon School District, said that some smaller school districts rarely get Open Records requests and may not have experience dealing with them. “Give them the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “It’s helpful to give them a deadline and understand that redactions take time.”

Jonen also said, “The more you can tell us about the context of your request, the more helpful it is to us.” She suggested reporters ask to be told the cost of complying with the record request in advance.

Questions from the audience.

Questions from the audience.

The session was well attended, with more than 40 participants. The Madison SPJ Pro Chapter would like to thank the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and the Wisconsin Newspaper Association for sponsoring lunch.

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The Society of Professional Journalists Madison Pro Chapter
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