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…

The Kind of Reporting FOI Makes Possible….

Kudos to Milwaukee (Wis.) Journal Sentinel investigative reporter Gina Barton, whose excellent October 2011 three-part series “Both Sides of the Law” found that at least 93 Milwaukee police officers had been disciplined for violating laws and ordinances, but didn’t lose their jobs.

Barton said it took nearly two years of records requests, a court case, and $7,500 in fees to complete the story. Her findings made an impact in the local community — and with state legislators.

In such tough times for newsrooms, such work is particularly noteworthy. The dedication of time and resources here is impressive, and the results? Well, the speak for themselves. Check out the series here. And don’t miss this section, which contains the FOI saga and all of the primary source documents.

This is also powerful evidence of why internal complaint files must be public — and they are not in many states — and what lurks in the darkness when such records are kept secret.

Milwaukee Police Department

Image via Wikipedia

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