Tom Kamenick: Protect your right to open government
YOUR RIGHT TO KNOW

Tom Kamenick: Protect your right to open government

  • 0
{{featured_button_text}}

Wisconsin’s tradition of government transparency rests on the state’s open records and open meetings laws. They declare that nearly every government document is open to public inspection, and nearly every meeting of groups formed to do governmental work must be open to the public.

Unfortunately, those laws are woefully underenforced. District attorneys and the state’s Attorney General are empowered to enforce them, but rarely do so. That leaves individuals and watchful organizations to carry the load.

But too many people are unaware of their rights under the records and meetings laws. That enables government officials to put unnecessary roadblocks in their way. People are told things that aren’t true, given evasive or incomplete answers, or just ignored in hopes that they’ll go away. Recently, I launched a new law firm, the Wisconsin Transparency Project, dedicated solely to litigating open government cases. Part of its mission is to educate the public about the questionable tactics they may encounter, such as the following:

Tom Kamenick

Kamenick

Open records

Delay: There is no strict deadline for producing records, but responding to requests is supposed to be a priority. Many simple requests can be completed the same day. The Attorney General recommends no longer than 10 days for most requests. Very few requests should ever take more than a month.

Illegal copy fees: Copy fees should be calculated based on the cost of paper and a per-page charge for use of a copier in a copier lease or similar formula (the DOJ calculates its cost at about a penny per page). Challenge custodians to show you that calculation if they ask for, say, 25 cents per page.

Illegal location fees: Custodians can charge the actual cost of locating records if it exceeds $50. These costs are often inflated to discourage requests. The search should be done by the lowest-paid employee capable of doing it. And it is not proper for records custodians to charge for reviewing records to determine what to black out or otherwise not release.

Illegal demands: Custodians cannot demand that you identify yourself, explain why you want the records, come in to view the records instead of having them copied and mailed to you, or provide copies in paper format if you want them electronically.

Open meetings

Vague notices: Before a meeting, public bodies must put out a public notice explaining what they’re going to discuss or do. If you can’t tell from the wording what this will be, that’s a problem.

Illegal closed sessions: Closed sessions are permissible only in very limited circumstances. Officials must explain why they are going into closed session (merely quoting a statutory exception isn’t good enough) and are not allowed to discuss other topics when they do.

Walking quorums: Officials sometimes try to get around public meeting requirements by holding a series of smaller meetings, each less than a quorum, to reach agreement before a meeting. They can’t do that, even via email or phone.

If you run into any of these problems, consider reaching out for legal advice.

Our laws are only as good as the people willing to enforce them. You can contact my law firm, or other law firms that do transparency work, including Pines Bach, Schott, Bublitz & Engel, Godfrey & Kahn, and the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Tom Kamenick is the president and founder of the Wisconsin Transparency Project.

0
0
0
0
0

Catch the latest in Opinion

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

President Donald Trump and I have something in common: we both take the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine. In my case, it's to treat the immune system disorders lupus and arthritis. In his case, it's to make some sort of point about how right he is to tout it as a miracle cure for COVID-19. On May 18, Trump proudly announced that he is taking the drug to stave off the coronavirus, ...

Imagine if you killed somebody on your job, and all you got that day was fired. You go into work the next day, return the keycard you swipe every morning when you get on the elevator, pack the things from your desk, toss out whatever food you have in the pantry refrigerator and say goodbye to your co-workers before two security guards escort you out of the building. And, let's just say this ...

President Donald Trump has finally goaded Twitter into starting the fight that Trump has been itching to have. Unfortunately for the social media giant, it's a fight Twitter cannot win anymore - and one that Trump and his allies do not want to end. Over the course of his term, the president has flouted Twitter's terms of service countless times with impunity as he's used the platform to launch ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alerts

Breaking News