The state’s refusal to identify specific schools with COVID-19 cases suggests a pernicious problem: that officials don’t trust parents and students to have easy public access to information that could put schools or administrators in a negative light.
In May, as the state Legislature’s Republican-controlled budget committee considered a plan to spend far less on education than what Democrat Gov. Tony Evers proposed, Sheila Plotkin started filing public records requests.
A week after Republicans in the state Legislature voted to gut the public records law in 2015, members of the Assembly sought to quell backlash over the plan. A resolution that passed 96-1 affirms that the Assembly “remains committed to our state’s open record and open government laws and policies, and will take all necessary steps to ensure that these laws and policies are preserved without modification or degradation.”
Fast-forward two-and-a-half years: Has the Assembly kept its promise? Here are some recent events to consider. In November, Assembly Chief Clerk Patrick Fuller and Senate Chief Clerk Jeffrey Renk denied public records requests from multiple news organizations for records of personnel and sexual harassment investigations. Among other reasons for withholding the documents, the clerks claimed disclosure would have a chilling effect on employees’ use of the Legislature’s internal complaint process.
Should enforcement of Wisconsin’s open records and open meetings laws depend on individual citizens having to file often costly and protracted lawsuits? That is one option prescribed under these laws, and those who prevail in such cases can recover attorney’s fees. But the laws also contain provisions intended to help people resolve disputes in a cheaper and less complicated way: Citizens can ask the state attorney general or county district attorney to sue a government authority, and any person can seek advice from the attorney general.