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Our Views: Open-government office merits salute for efforts to foster transparency

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Gazette editorial board
Monday, December 7, 2015

In June, state Attorney General Brad Schimel opened the Attorney General’s Office of Open Government.

Business is booming.

“I am pleased to tell you we have made great strides in the last six months to ensure that open and transparent government exists in our state,” Schimel said in a news release. “We have a team dedicated to maintaining open and transparent government for the benefit of all Wisconsin citizens. This is a promise I made when I sought this office, and it is one I am proud we have kept.”

Lest you think Schimel is bragging, numbers back up his words.

Soon after taking office in January, Schimel and his staff reorganized the open-government personnel and streamlined the process of responding to public records requests. In 2014, it took the Department of Justice an average of 59 days to respond to requests. While that was down from the unconscionable 94 days it took to respond in 2011 under previous Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, Schimel’s team has cut that to 20 days this year and a remarkable 16 days since the office of open government opened.

Besides, the office is getting much more traffic, as Schimel suggests. Last year, the department received 486 such requests. By Dec. 1 of this year, the office had fielded 701.

Since January, the agency has received 375 calls regarding open meetings and public records and has closed 358 of those inquiries.

The office recently moved from the Risser Justice Center to the state Capitol to make resources more accessible to the public.

“I’m absolutely thrilled that the Department of Justice is actively trying to reduce response times and improve the process of responding to records requests,” says Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. “It is setting an example worthy of emulation by other state agencies and local governments. How refreshing that the attorney general sees facilitating access to public records as a way to serve the public and secure its trust. Bravo!”

Those at freedom of information council meetings that Schimel and key staffers have attended say he understands well his role and is earnest in efforts to increase government transparency.

In July, Schimel hosted a day-long summit focused on Wisconsin’s open meetings and open records laws. More than 200 people attended, including state and local officials and employees, journalists, attorneys and private citizens.

Last month, the open government office offered a live webinar on the laws. It has posted recordings of the webinar, as well as updated compliance guides, online.

Unfortunately, not every elected official on either the state or local level gets it as well as Schimel does. A prime example is the amendment that Republicans slipped into the state budget on the Fourth of July weekend. It was an assault on the open meetings law so disturbing that public outcry caused them to swiftly backtrack.

“I do hope the office realizes that others in government are not nearly so committed to the ideal of transparency—after what we’ve seen from the Legislature this year, how could it not?—and recognize that leadership may not be enough,” Lueders said. “On occasion, advocates for open government have to fight.”

Schimel criticized the July proposal and must stay vigilant for more such efforts. In addition, Schimel has far to go to get the attitude of transparency to percolate down to the village of Orfordville and some other small local governments.

 



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