Reversing course, Gov. Tony Evers released a day’s worth of his emails in response to a public records request after declining to do so in a separate case.
On Wednesday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the Evers administration granted its request to view the emails Evers sent and received on one day: Nov. 12. The administration turned over copies of two press releases and his daily schedule.
The grant of the request represents a change in course for the administration after it denied a Fox 6 reporter’s request for just a day’s worth of records because the request was not limited to a specific subject matter.
The denial of the records request prompted outcry from public records advocates who said the governor fell short in his commitment to transparency.
Advocates of transparency in government say open records requests keep public officials accountable and help ensure taxpayer money is spent wisely and legally.
In releasing the Nov. 12 records, the Evers administration said it was providing an exception from the state’s open records law that says a request “is deemed sufficient if it reasonably describes the requested record or the information requested.”
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said the requests for records should have been granted all along and that the grant of records is providing cover for the administration’s lack of transparency.
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Lueders also took issue with the administration saying it was providing an exception in releasing the records.
“The problem with making an exception is you’re establishing the baseline that you don’t really have to provide the records,” Lueders said. “That’s really dangerous. I think other public officials are going to seize upon that rationale to selectively decide on what occasions they need to obey the law and what occasions they don’t.”
The Evers administration has argued a records request is not sufficient if it doesn’t include a specific subject matter and length of time involved. They argued they were following the same approach to open records as former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s administration, which had denied some records requests for lacking a subject matter.
Wisconsin law says “a request for a record without a reasonable limitation as to subject matter or length of time represented by the record does not constitute a sufficient request.”
But open records advocates see the law differently. They say it allows for records requests to be granted if they reasonably specify either the subject or the length of time, not necessarily both.
Those opposed to the administration’s arguments say it’s important to be able to request a record without a specific subject matter because it’s not always clear to requesters what keywords or subject terms they should use to get at the information they want. Requiring a specific subject, they say, could make it easier for government officials to hide documents.
The Evers administration also faces a lawsuit over its open records practices. Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, filed suit in Dane County Circuit Court to compel Evers’ office to turn over records on farmer mental health programs his office had denied in full.