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.
As part of national Sunshine Week, March 16-22, the columnist wants to reflect on the importance of journalists and others being more than mere spectators in the tug of war that perpetually plays out over these issues.
Wisconsin’s Open Records Law asserts the public’s right to the “greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them.” But the law’s reach has been tested in recent years by electronic communications that are easily sent — and just as easily deleted — from officials’ email and cellphone accounts.
More than 50 cases of trafficking or attempted trafficking of minors on Backpage.com have been filed in 22 states in the past three years, says a letter from 45 attorneys general. Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen declined to sign the letter, saying he has “a policy of not publicly announcing the details of ongoing investigations or publicly negotiating private sector cooperation.”