Gov. Tony Evers during an interview with Paul Fanlund, Cap Times Editor and Jessie Opoien, Cap Times Opinion Editor, at the State Capitol in Madison, on Tuesday, August 27, 2019. PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers is failing to follow the open records practices set by his Republican predecessor, a new report from a conservative group charges. 

The findings from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty comes a month after the conservative MacIver Institute filed a lawsuit against Evers, alleging his office has excluded the outlet from media events.

The report, released Monday, argues Evers' office is "disorganized and inconsistent" in its records tracking practices, and that one out of three requests logged there were not fulfilled or not recorded correctly.  

The findings also highlighted the fact that the administration also no longer maintains a public dashboard tracking the progress of records requests across agencies, a practice that began under former Gov. Scott Walker. 

Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff refuted the brief, writing in an email that "WILL is lurching towards desperation with this one," adding the administration follows state public records law and Department of Justice guidance, "not executive orders issued by prior administrations."

Walker over his tenure in the executive branch issued two executive orders directing state agencies to maintain a log of their responses to public records, cap charges for information and set timelines for responding to and filling certain requests. 

In 2018, after the orders were issued, he received an Openness Award, or Opee, from the nonpartisan Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, which seeks to promote open government. 

Walker, though, also sought to curb the public's access to certain records. For example, the administration argued it didn't need to keep "transitory" records, including text messages. In the most extreme case, Republican lawmakers sought to gut the records law in the 2015-17 budget on his watch. 

The language was ultimately taken out following public backlash over the effort, which would have allowed legislators the right to refuse to release communications over their time in office, among other things.

Meanwhile, WILL's review of 11 different agencies' and offices' records logs — which include information tracking the number of requests received and fulfilled — found that under the Evers administration, many agencies are following the timelines laid out under Walker's executive orders. 

For example, the report found five agencies — Administration, Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Health Services, Natural Resources and Revenue — are fulfilling requests on average within less than 10 business days. For those, WILL's report said, "Walker’s legacy of transparency lives on."

But it noted two departments, Children and Families and Transportation, failed to fulfill WILL's requests for records logs after 40 business days. And as for Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the document showed that although his office only received 13 records requests over a six-month period, it took staffers on average 22 business days to respond to a request. 

WILL executive vice president CJ Szafir in a statement slammed Evers for "clearly not prioritizing government transparency."

"This is dangerous because open government is not just an ideal but a critical tool for the public in a democracy to hold their elected officials and public employees accountable," he said. "Evers threatens to turn Wisconsin’s proud legacy of transparency in state government into a bureaucratic black box.”

But Baldauff, Evers' spokeswoman, said the claims the governor's office is disorganized in its record log is "false," adding the premise was based on a "living document," a spreadsheet that was actively being updated when WILL requested it. In all, she said, Evers' office fulfilled 195 of the 209 requests it received between Jan. 7 and Sept. 6. 

As for maintaining a records dashboard, she said the administration "is evaluating how to better present accurate information about public records to the public in an efficient manner."

It's unclear whether executive orders issued by Walker that direct agencies to adopt policies or change their practices and procedures apply beyond the end of his administration, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau. That's because there's no existing state statute or case law on that point.

Agencies could follow the old practices, LRB added, particularly if the new governor hadn't issued an updated order or one to discontinue the practice or procedures.

In the past, governors have often signed new orders rescinding or suspending former executive orders. But if the governor has not done so, "it is unclear whether the prior executive order remains in effect and must be followed," per LRB. 

Freedom of Information Council head Bill Lueders wrote in an email that while his experience with the Evers administration hasn't been that it's "markedly less responsive to records requests than the Walker administration," he applauded WILL for "keeping Gov. Evers on his toes."

"Gov. Evers should affirm his commitment to the two very good executive orders issued by his predecessor, and he should continually find ways to improve state agency performance in this vital area," he added. 

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