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Urge legislators to support efforts to fix hole in open records laws

Star News


State Sen. Duey Stroebel of Cedarburg and Rep. Todd Novak of Dodgeville have taken on the role of championing open government in Wisconsin, but they cannot go it alone. They will need the support of their fellow legislators on both sides of the political aisle.

The two Republican legislators have proposed a bill that will reverse last year’s ruling by the Wisconsin Supreme Court and help guarantee that members of the public will continue to have timely access to government records.

A 2022 Wisconsin Supreme Court opinion, Friends of Frame Park, U.A. v. City of Waukesha held that if a governmental entity releases records after a suit has been filed, but before a court has acted on the case, the requester is not entitled to seek attorney’s fees. Prior to the decision, a court could determine if the actions of the requester that lead to the release of the records had in large part resulted in the records release.

The Supreme Court ruling gutted the spirit of Wisconsin’s open records law. It gave tacit blessing to government bodies to drag their heels on releasing records even after being threatened with legal action. Attorneys don’t work cheap and the cost of hiring quality attorneys is a deterrent for public records cases to move forward. Justice should not be solely for those with the deepest pockets.

“It is the government’s duty to respond to citizens efficiently and in a timely manner — this bill ensures accountability when government tries to avoid transparency,” said Lucas Vebber an attorney with conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. WILL helped the legislators draft the proposal, drawing praise from open government advocates.

Wisconsin’s public records law requires government officials to provide requested records as soon as practicable and without delay. An increasing trend statewide has been for governments to be less than forthcoming with those records. Their hope is that the person or group requesting the records will eventually give up and go away. The majority opinion from Justice Brian Hagedorn in Frame Park, U.A. v. City of Waukesha, further emboldened those actions by removing any real consequences for delays up to handing them over on the courthouse steps moments before a hearing is to begin and effectively punishing the requestors by making them pick up all the legal bills.

As it has done a number of times in recent years, the Wisconsin Supreme Court erred in putting up a barrier to the public’s access to public records. The proposal from Stroebel and Novak seeks to fix this error and bring real consequences against governments who hide their business from the public they are there to serve.

Contact Rep. James Edming and Sen. Cory Tomczyk and urge them to sign on as cosponsors of the proposal and to vote in favor of it when it ultimately comes up for a vote.