A troubling bill in Wisconsin would cost FOI requesters dearly…

From the Department of Bad FOI Laws comes this nightmare:

[Wisconsin] Government agencies could once again attempt to charge hundreds – even thousands – of dollars to release public records about how police deal with and report on crime, under a draft bill in the Assembly. The bill also would allow agencies to extend those charges to other areas, such as records on taxpayer subsidies to businesses.

The proposal seeks to undo a unanimous state Supreme Court ruling last summer that found the City of Milwaukee could not charge the Journal Sentinel for the time its employees spent deleting from public records some information they considered confidential.

The lawsuit stemmed from a 2010 open records request based on a Journal Sentinel attempt to audit two weeks of incident reports for offenses such as assault, burglary and theft. The department, which had already produced copies of 100 incident reports for free, switched gears and told the news organization the additional 750 reports would cost about $4,000 and would take police more than nine months to produce.

While the lawsuit was moving through the courts, the news organization asked for much larger crime data files from the state Justice Department and the Milwaukee County district attorney’s office. Both agencies provided those records quickly and at minimal cost.

Ultimately, the Journal Sentinel reported that police had misreported thousands of violent assaults, rapes, robberies and burglaries as less serious offenses, and failed to correct the problems or publicly disclose them.

A consultant hired by the Fire and Police commission largely confirmed the findings. The consultant, who for months publicly backed Police Chief Edward Flynn and his department’s handling of the flawed crime figures, said he found no evidence of conspiracy to alter the numbers.

The sponsor of the draft bill is Rep. Garey Bies, chairman of the Assembly Corrections Committee and a former chief sheriff’s deputy in Door County. Bies said he hadn’t talked with the department or its police officers union about the bill. He said he wrote it after learning of the Supreme Court decision and talking to local officials in his district, who were concerned about being saddled with unexpected costs.

“I don’t want to see the taxpayer stuck with a bill from someone who’s maybe on a hunting expedition,” he said.

He said that most redactions should cost little or nothing, and that if newspapers are seeking records that cost thousands of dollars to redact, they must be making broad searches. Asked specifically about the costs charged to the Journal Sentinel for the Milwaukee police records, Bies said the newspaper “maybe should have been keeping track of that to start with.”

Bies said that he had not checked with legislative leaders about whether they backed his idea and that he expected difficulty in getting it to the floor.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said that in the past government officials have abused the fees that are allowed under the law. He predicted more would do so if the Legislature provided another avenue for charging fees.

“We consider it a tax on the public’s right to know. Public officials are already paid to do their jobs,” Lueders said. “Why should they get paid extra when they get paid to do this job already?”

Make no mistake: this would represent a huge blow to FOI requesters, and would open a cavernous new loophole to state FOI regimes everywhere, as state after state will move to enact similar provisions. This is a DEFCON 5 threat, people…

FOI at work: Wisconsin coach was writing love notes to Arkansas AD long before hire…

A shrewd use of FOI in Arkansas

English:

English: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

demonstrates, once again, the power of public records on the sports beat…

Strange as it seems, the nuances of the Freedom of Information Act have loomed improbably large lately over Arkansas football, having played a key role in fanning the flames that lapped at both Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino on their way out of town. Now, in the case of new head coach Bret Bielema, his first Fayetteveille FOIA might as well be a rite of initiation.

Unlike his predecessors, Bielema isn’t being pursued for scandal, but rather for a friendly note he wrote his new boss earlier this year – at least two months before the Razorbacks left the rest of the country gobsmacked last week by poaching the architect of back-to-back-to-back Big Ten championship teams at Wisconsin. According to documents released by the university, Bielema actually made contact with Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long in September, when he sent Long a handwritten note supporting his decision to fire Petrino after a motorcycle accident revealed an inappropriate relationship with an athletic department staffer. Reporters picked up the scent when Long mentioned the note from Bielema last week, and on Monday got their hands on the original…

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Wisconsin High Court: No, Agencies Can Not Charge for Redaction….

The Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously ruled Wednesday against the City of Milwaukee and for the Journal Sentinel in a dispute over whether a government body can charge for its employees to delete information deemed confidential from public records. Reversing a Milwaukee County judge’s ruling, the high court said Wisconsin’s 30-year-old public records law has never allowed public agencies to charge requesters for redacting information from records. The city argued it could charge for redacting under provisions of the law that allow fees to be charged for locating and copying records. The Supreme Court rejected that argument and said such fees could be used by governmental bodies to effectively deny release of records. “This case is not about a direct denial of public access to records, but the issue in the present case directly implicates the accessibility of government records,” Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote in the decision. “The greater the fee imposed on a requester of a public record, the less likely the requester will be willing and able to successfully make a record request.”

Madison Officials To Examine Their Multitasking After State Journal Nabs ‘Em

Thanks to this story, which revealed that Madison City Council members are emailing or texting colleagues, lobbyists, staff and others during public meetings, led to this welcome piece of news:

Madison City Council members intend to examine rules for emailing and texting during public meetings, and others are calling for a statewide review of such communications and their impact on open government.

The response comes in the wake of a State Journal investigation last week that revealed an unseen flow of electronic communications between council members, staff, lobbyists and others — including real-time conversations on matters before the council — during meetings.

The city should consider new rules through the council’s organizational committee, which already is shaping a council job description and code of ethics, or a special work group, members said.

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FOI At Work: the punishments for docs who wrote sick notes for Wisconsin protesters…

An interesting nugget, courtesy of FOI:

The state medical school disciplined 20 doctors and fined 11 of them up to $4,000 for handing out sick notes to demonstrators at last year’s labor protests, newly released records show.

The records, requested by the Journal Sentinel last year under the state’s open records law, show for the first time the extent of the discipline given to those doctors by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

In several cases, doctors in more senior positions within the school also had to step away from those roles for a period of four months over one year. All the doctors were warned that further actions could result in them being fired.

“In the future, you are expected to adhere to the appropriate standards of doctor/patient interaction,” the letters sent to doctors in May and June of last year read.

The discipline records show that the physicians disciplined in most cases insisted they had acted correctly even when accepting the discipline, saying they believed they were helping public employees under stress rather than writing fake sick notes to allow demonstrators to skip work and keep protesting.

The Wisconsin FOI Landslide…

So Gov. Walker got FOIA’d a bunch

MADISON, WI - MARCH 05:  A protestor holds a s...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

. Really? Who would have thunk it?

The firestorm of debate ignited by Gov. Scott Walker’s changes to collective bargaining rules last year also triggered an explosion of requests for public information from his office.

The office received 214 written requests during 2011, some three times more than the previous governor saw just a few years earlier, Gannett Wisconsin Media found while checking public records activity as part of a Sunshine Week open-government initiative.

The analysis, involving more than 700 pages of documents, also showed that about 1 in 5 requesters got records within a month. Others waited as long as 120 days or more.

The volume of requests last year “probably has a lot to do with a lot of the budget reforms,” said Cullen Werwie, a spokesman for Walker.

 

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Wisconsin Supremes Take Dispute Over Public Records Status of Legal Bills

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether a law firm must disclose redacted portions of legal bills to a Juneau County newspaper under the state’s open records laws. The case is one of four recently accepted for review during the current term.

A lawyer with the Crivello Carlson law firm served as counsel to Juneau County’s sheriff in connection with a disciplinary matter. Juneau County retained the lawyer under its insurance contract, which covered the county’s defense in this type of disciplinary proceeding.

Crivello Carlsen sent its legal bills to the county’s insurer, Wisconsin County Mutual Insurance Corp. (WCMIC). Eventually, a reporter for the Juneau County Star-Times made a public records request for the legal bills.

The law firm provided redacted versions of the bills to the newspaper. The newspaper then sued the county, seeking the redacted portions of the legal bills. The circuit court granted summary judgment to the county, but an appeals court reversed.

In Juneau County Star-Times v. Juneau County, 2010AP2313, the supreme court is expected to decide whether the law firm must disclose the redacted portions of the legal bills submitted to the insurance company for legal services rendered to the county.

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