Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council president Bill Lueders said he's troubled by what he called a movement toward a "culture of contempt for the public's right to know."
In an interview with WKOW-TV's "Capitol City Sunday," Lueders questioned whether recent events show a tipping of the scales toward a government of individuals more concerned with secrecy than openness.
"It's not universal, but it is significant enough that it needs to be acknowledged and addressed," Lueders said. "There are people within government who would prefer to operate in secret. That may have always been true, but I've kept that at arm's length and I've always made the point that most public officials are committed to openness. I think that may be changing, and I think we need to take that very seriously."
Lueders' group last week filed a verified complaint against the state Public Records Board, which it contended violated the open meetings law at its Aug. 24 meeting, when it voted to expand what can be considered as transitory records.
Those transitory records — items considered to have no long-term value — have been central to two open records request denials in recent months, one by the Wisconsin State Journal on text messages and another by liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now on visitor logs at the governor's mansion.
Gov. Scott Walker said last week that his office follows the open records law, but a Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism story quoted two former Walker cabinet members saying the administration had a policy of using private channels to discuss government business.
Peter Bildsten, the former secretary of the Department of Financial Institutions, and Paul Jadin, the former head of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., said Department of Administration secretary Mike Huebsch told cabinet officials not to use state email addresses or phones to communicate important information or documents.
Lueders said that directive may not have been a violation of state law but it wasn't in keeping with the spirit of open government.
"It's not what we've come to expect of the government in Wisconsin," Lueders told host Greg Neumann.
Matt Blessing, the head of the state's Public Records Board said the group did not change its policy on transitory records in August, but the board scheduled another meeting to reevaluate its decision to expand what's covered.
That episode was a "major black eye for the state that they tried to significantly undercut our public records law in a sneaky and cowardly way by sticking it into the budget at the last minute," Lueders said.
He's not convinced that the state has heard the last of potential cuts to open records access in the Legislature, and the budget flap made the possibility of updating the laws to address new technologies more difficult.
"People who support open government are very reluctant to let this Legislature take a kick at the open records law, to open it up and to revisit it and to make significant changes," Lueders said. "I think we're just afraid of what could happen."
Lueders also called for a commitment to ending the practice of using private email accounts for government business at the state and local levels.
"I think we've seen that it's just too dangerous to allow these communications to occur in a medium that is harder to access," he said. "We should back away from that. We shouldn't allow that to happen."