Credit for the Victory on Public Records

January 13, 2016

The decision by the Public Records Board on Monday to rescind its revision of its policy on “transitory records” is a victory for open government in Wisconsin.

The Walker administration had seized upon the loosening of the definition of “transitory records” to deny requests from the media for records on important public matters, such as the $500,000 WEDC loan to Building Committee, Inc., and the names of the people who visited the governor’s mansion during his failed presidential run.

But this victory did not happen all by itself. In fact, it wouldn’t have happened without some tremendous work by Wisconsin’s largest newspapers and the Freedom of Information Council, and the vital response of Wisconsin’s citizenry.

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So let’s give credit where credit is due.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel deserves the lion’s share of the credit. First of all, it broke the story, with a great bit of investigative work by reporter Jason Stein. And then, like newspapers of old, it led an all-out campaign to overturn the decision. It listed the board members’ names and phone numbers and urged citizens to call them and to send in their comments prior to Monday’s meeting. It published editorials and columns on the subject by David Haynes, Ernest-Ulrich Franzen, and George Stanley. And on the day before the meeting, it again urged members of the public to register their disapproval.

The Wisconsin State Journal also strongly advocated for overturning the board’s decision. The paper was properly outraged that the Walker administration had used that decision as a pretext to deny it the information on the WEDC loan. Reporters Matthew DeFour and Mark Sommerhauser wrote several good stories on this, and the paper published excellent editorials on it, as well.

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, led by the indefatigable Bill Lueders, deserves our thanks, too. It filed suit against the Public Records Board, alleging that it had violated the open meetings law because it didn’t publish on its agenda, or in its minutes, that it was changing the definition of “transitory records.”

The Capital Times ran several excellent pieces on it, too, from Jessie Opoien and Katelyn Ferral. And the Janesville Gazette and Urban Milwaukee both editorialized strongly against the change.

And once again, the people of Wisconsin rose up to defend our great tradition of open government, inundating the Public Records Board with opposition. According to an excellent report by the Journal Sentinel’s Jason Stein and Mary Spicuzza, there were 1,876 written comments to the board. (The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign submitted one of these.) Their random search of 100 of these emails showed unanimous disapproval of the board’s decision.

This kind of vigilance – from the media, watchdog groups, and the citizenry – is the only hope we have of reversing the rollback of clean and open government in Wisconsin.