The annual budget University of Wisconsin System officials withheld from the public this week on grounds it wasn’t completed had actually been finished and sent to members of the System’s governing board several days earlier.
And while a UW spokesman initially said the Regents’ president, Regina Millner, made the controversial decision to release the budget only an hour and a half before the board voted on it Thursday, Millner said Friday that she was not involved in that decision, and wanted to release the documents sooner.
“I did not know that that was the decision,” Millner said, when the Wisconsin State Journal informed her about the public release of the 2016-17 spending plan. “That’s not what I thought was going to happen.”
Millner said she thought officials would release the budget to the public on Wednesday.
System spokesman Alex Hummel said Friday it was the office of President Ray Cross that kept the operating budget under wraps until the Thursday meeting.
UW officials generally release documents detailing items on the Regents’ agenda early in the week of their meetings. But while materials for almost all of the board’s meetings Thursday and Friday at UW-Milwaukee were posted online Monday, the $6.2 billion 2016-17 annual operating budget was not.
Hummel first said the budget would be posted Wednesday. But on Wednesday afternoon, he told reporters that the budget would not be released until the Regents started their discussion of it the next day.
The budget was eventually posted online at 2 p.m. Thursday; the Regents unanimously approved it about 90 minutes later after brief discussion.
Millner said Friday that she thought officials released the budget on Wednesday.
“If I found it was coming out 90 minutes before I wouldn’t have been very happy,” she said. Asked whether it was a mistake to release the documents on Thursday afternoon, Millner declined to say, but added, “I would have preferred that it went out on Wednesday.”
Claim made that budget
was being ‘
In his message to reporters Wednesday, Hummel claimed that UW staff members were still working “to finalize the budget information leading into (Thursday’s) meetings and full-board presentation.”
But Tony Evers, state superintendent of public instruction and a board member, said he received the completed budget on June 3, six days before the Regents’ meeting and five days before Hummel’s statement that the budget was not finished.
The budget itself also indicates it was ready on June 3 — the meta data of a PDF file of the budget states it was last modified that afternoon.
Hummel said the budget was provided to Regents last week “with the understanding that those materials are always subject to changes.” The budget was approved without any modifications.
“The Board of Regents’ and the president’s offices continued finalizing and reviewing supporting materials and the 2016-17 budget documents leading up to this Thursday’s Regent meeting,” Hummel said. “In the interest of presenting and sharing the most accurate information, the president’s office elected not to post materials until that process was fully complete.”
After they received the budget, Regents discussed it in detail with UW staff members during private meetings while the document was not available to the public, Hummel acknowledged Friday.
The meetings were held in person or on the phone, according to Hummel. They involved “a couple of Regents” at a time, Hummel said — not enough to constitute a quorum of the board, which would have required the meeting be open to the public.
“They are not new,” Hummel said of the private meetings.
Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders said he did not understand why UW would keep the budget private and claim staff members were still working on the document when it was actually finished.
“It’s baffling that the UW made efforts to conceal this document until virtually the last minute,” Lueders said. “What good could possibly come from that?”
Millner: Delay necessary
Millner, who was re-elected Friday to her position as board president, said the decision to hold the documents longer than other meeting materials was justified.
UW staff needed to have time to prepare their presentations of the budget before it was released so the media and public could understand it better, Millner said. She denied that the budget was kept private in an attempt to avoid public scrutiny or attention. “It’s very important that with transparency is clarity,” she said. “Part of clarity is understanding the context of the elements of the budget.”
Open government advocates say there is no legal requirement that government agencies such as the Board of Regents post their meeting materials online, though doing so has been the practice of the board and other public bodies.
But Lueders said the budget document that was shared with the Regents was a public record, and should have been provided to anyone who requested it under Wisconsin’s open records law.
The State Journal requested the documents on Wednesday; a UW official acknowledged the request, but did not provide the records, stating she was busy preparing for the Regents’ meeting.
On Friday, the State Journal wrote to Wisconsin Department of Justice officials seeking an opinion from Attorney General Brad Schimel as to whether UW officials violated state records or meetings laws by not providing the budget.
Millner said UW could similarly restrict access to meeting documents in the future, if they involve “very complex issues that require clarity in explaining the content.”
She also said officials took note of the public response to how the budget documents were handled. “We need to be more sensitive to the fact that people are concerned about this,” she said.
Lueders said the possibility that UW could routinely withhold public documents is “terribly concerning.”
If the System pursues that strategy, media and other organizations could challenge it in court, Lueders said. He predicted UW would lose, and wind up wasting money “fighting for secrecy that they don’t deserve and that violates the law.”
‘It’s baffling that the UW made efforts to conceal this document until virtually the last minute.’ Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President