Stop playing games with public records
Stop playing games with public records
EDITORIAL

Stop playing games with public records

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Gov. Tony Evers has now released one day of his emails, having previously denied a similar request.

Good. Keep going, governor. Fully embrace open government, regardless of who is asking for public documents. Our state definitely needs more leadership when it comes to promoting transparency for taxpayers.

In just the last few weeks, the public has learned that Assembly Republican lawmakers wasted $26,500 of state money on lawyers, trying unsuccessfully to deny a request for digital copies of their communications. This is the same GOP-run Legislature that tried to gut the open records law, and has granted itself special permission to delete records and meet in secret.

At the local level, the Madison School District has denied or ignored two dozen requests for public documents from a city resident. The anonymous person sued last month, meaning local property taxpayers could be on the hook for legal expenses if school officials continue to resist compliance.

On this week's political podcast, Milfred and Hands assess former Gov. Scott Walker's anointed Republican challenger to take on Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in 2022. They play audio clips from Walker at this week's Milwaukee Press Club event in Milwaukee, and speculate on U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson's future, as well as other potential GOP candidates who might seek higher office after President Donald Trump wins or loses his reelection.

With few exceptions, Wisconsin’s open records law allows people to request public documents without identifying themselves. That way, requesters don’t have to fear government reprisals.

Some of the items the unnamed person is requesting are as straightforward as “weekly updates” for School Board members, and school improvement plans. Such information is clearly of public interest and doesn’t pose a safety threat. The district should hand over the documents.

Gov. Evers should lead by example so lower-level public servants are more likely to respect the people’s right to know what their government is doing — and so tedious court fights don’t waste public money.

The Democratic governor said he would bring greater respect to transparency laws as a candidate last year. Evers pledged to “prohibit agencies from withholding documents from independent review,” and faulted Republicans for “expansive, arbitrary” nondisclosure agreements. Evers blamed then-Gov. Scott Walker’s administration for undermining the “state’s rich tradition of transparency and accountability.”

Now Evers’ staff has oddly been citing Walker’s practices as justification for its refusal to release certain records. It has noted that former Gov. Walker refused to provide documents to people who failed to identify a topic or specific key words they were looking for in government emails.

But those requests were much broader than the simple ones Evers has resisted. And why would Evers make Walker the standard for compliance with open government laws? Evers promised to be much better than his predecessor at allowing citizens access to public information.

When Evers’ office finally released a single day of his emails last week — this time to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, having previously denied a similar request from WITI-TV (Ch. 6) — it did so with a troubling caveat. It said it was making an exception in releasing the handful of emails, meaning his office wants to reserve the right to deny similar requests in the future. And Evers still hasn’t fulfilled WITI-TV’s simple request.

That’s not a strong example of openness. It’s a sneaky dodge of his office’s responsibilities.

Instead of moving backward or standing still on open government, Evers should lead Wisconsin forward.

Phil Hands: Grumpy socialists, grateful turkeys and a great big axe in this week's cartoon roundup

A collection of recent cartoons from the desk of Wisconsin State Journal editorial cartoonist Phil Hands.

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