During the last Beloit School Board meeting members discussed various issues related to how the administration has been handling information requested under Wisconsin’s Public Records Law.
It was noted some requests coming in are kind of broad, and kind of vague. A concern was whether the school district should deny such requests—as it apparently has been doing—or fulfill what they can and perhaps work with the requester to narrow the data field. Board member John Wong said he didn’t think it was the district’s job to coach a requester for a “fishing expedition.”
Meanwhile, a similar records issue has been playing out in the office of Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers.
The governor’s office has denied multiple requests claiming they were not specific enough to generate proper search terms. For example, Milwaukee-based WITI-TV requested emails from a specified range of dates. The governor’s office denied it. So the station narrowed the request—denied again. Finally, emails for just one specific day were requested, and the governor’s office said no again.
Experts on the Wisconsin Public Records Law cried foul, saying the governor’s interpretation of statutory requirements is way off base.
For the moment, though, let’s not play the lawyerly game of arguing over the weeds of the law. Instead, let’s think about right and wrong.
The records law starts out with a declaration of Wisconsin policy: “... It is declared to be the public policy of this state that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government ... (records) shall be construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access ... denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest ...”
It’s hard to twist that simple language into anything less than a duty to work with citizens to provide them with what they want, unless it falls into the narrow list of exemptions also contained in the statute. It’s also hard to argue against a duty to fulfill what can be fulfilled in a given request and to, yes, coach a requester about narrowing an overly broad request. For heaven’s sake, citizens are not lawyers so how about not trying to lawyer them into submission?
Likewise, in the governor’s situation, it’s just absurd to deny a request so specific as to seek emails from a particular day.
Let’s call it what it is: A governmental unit willingly can accept transparency as part of its duty, or it can be obstinate and resentful of citizens asking for information. And it is not at all hard to figure out on which side of that coin a given governmental unit falls.
Like your mom told you: Don’t listen to what they say; watch what they do.