The state Department of Natural Resources has stopped placing persistent members of the public on a “do not respond” list, a spokesman said.
The people listed were viewed as being abusive or asking too many questions, but the DNR never failed to respond lawfully to requests for public records, said department spokesman George Althoff
Althoff provided a copy of the list, which is marked “confidential,” to the Wisconsin State Journal late Friday in response to a Feb. 5 request under the law. On Saturday he issued a statement from DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp.
“Upon discovery of the list, I made it clear to my staff that lists of this type will not be created or used,” Stepp said. “During my tenure we have worked hard to be responsive and transparent. I do not believe these type of lists are appropriate. We have been and will continue to be responsive to our constituents.”
But one listed person, Nancy Utesch, noted that the document indicates her name was referred by the DNR “Secretary’s Office,” so she was skeptical of Stepp’s statement.
Utesch, an activist in Kewaunee County, said she was unable to prepare fully for a public hearing Thursday on a large dairy farm’s permit request because the DNR for months failed to respond to her request, first made last summer, for access to public records.
Utesch and others were eager to testify because they say lax state regulation of manure from 16 large-scale dairy operations in Kewaunee County has harmed water quality. Thirty percent of private wells tested in the county are tainted by E. coli, nitrates and other pollutants.
DNR officials recently apologized for “confusion” over Utesch’s records request. She said the DNR left her with only days to read and analyze hundreds of pages of technical material.
“The notion that someone would use open records requests in a repetitive or abusive way is ridiculous,” Utesch said Monday. “It’s very time-consuming.”
The DNR “do not respond” list includes the names of 19 people, the DNR offices that referred them for listing, and the topics of their telephone calls or emails.
Topics included controversial areas such as regulation of high-capacity wells, which have been associated with lowered water levels on lakes and streams; permitting of very large dairy farms, which have been linked to tainted drinking water; frac sand mining, which conservationists say pollutes air and water; and wildlife management, including the handling of chronic wasting disease.
Althoff said most people on the list received responses to questions.
“DNR prides itself on being responsive to customer inquiries and encouraging feedback on issues of importance to our customers,” Althoff said. “Our goal is to be as helpful as possible in responding to inquiries from our customers and hold ourselves accountable in the process.”
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on the list in an article about delays in providing public records the department considered “sensitive” — including those involving politicians or pollution — so political appointees could give them extra attention. The article quoted a 2015 email from a top DNR executive, who has since taken another state job, telling staff to provide a minimal response to a man on the list because of the “sheer volume of contacts and correspondence” from him about declining numbers of yellow perch in Lake Michigan.
The DNR faces two lawsuits from conservation groups alleging the DNR violated the state law by taking up to 10 months to provide public documents. The law says the government must provide records “as soon as practicable and without delay.”
The lawsuits came on the heels of criticism over Gov. Scott Walker’s administration’s handling of public records and an abortive attempt by lawmakers last year to eliminate public access to most records produced by the Legislature.