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Schimel to host open government summit following uproar (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel said Monday that he hopes lawmakers will get some ideas for updating the state’s open records law during a summit he’s hosting, which comes just weeks after he spoke out against efforts to keep many government records private.

During an interview with The Associated Press, the Republican said the open government summit Wednesday was expected to generate recommendations for the Legislature to consider as it studies the issue in the coming months.

“We don’t want to make any mistake that narrows public access to government information,” Schimel said.

But some open government advocates are wary, given a July 2 vote by the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee to make secret nearly all records held by state and local officials and their aides. The committee also voted to exempt drafting files of legislation, electronic communications and any materials determined to be part of the “deliberative process” of crafting bills.

The summit was organized before that vote, followed by a quick retreat in the face of a swift and loud public outcry, including from Schimel.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said improvements to the law can be made, but he is concerned given the move made in the Legislature earlier this month.

“We do think there could be things done selectively and surgically to update the records law,” Lueders said. “Of course, we’re concerned about any process that reopens the law for revision, especially given what we saw with regard to the budget bill. The people who tried to make that change acted just not with disregard for the state’s tradition for open government, but with actual contempt.”

While the Legislature’s recent move will be the “elephant in the room,” Schimel said, he’s hopeful the meeting focuses on other pressing issues.

Previous attorneys general, both Republican and Democrat, have held regular meetings to update government officials, journalists and others about the state’s open records and meetings laws. The summit Schimel called is different in that it’s designed to begin the process of looking at ways to update the law to address technology such as email and online social media that didn’t exist when the law was first written in the early 1980s.

Topics to be discussed include how police body cameras and data collected related to officer-involved shootings should be treated under the law, the cost of obtaining open records, and the effect of new technology on retaining and maintaining records.

The Freedom of Information Council sent Schimel a letter in May with its own recommendations for law changes, including requiring officials to only use government email accounts when conducting business and mandating that an audio or video recording be made of closed meetings.

An attorney for the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and Wisconsin Broadcasters Association also recommended to Schimel that the summit address the retention of and public access to policy body-worn camera recordings and the costs that can be charged for locating and copying records.

About 170 people including government officials, journalists, attorneys, open-government advocates and others are scheduled to attend.

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