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Editorial: A step in the right direction for open records

By: Associated Press//February 22, 2023//

Editorial: A step in the right direction for open records

By: Associated Press//February 22, 2023//

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Wisconsin Republicans’ move to effectively render a recent state Supreme Court ruling moot is welcome news and should be embraced across party lines.

The move Tuesday begins the process of reversing one of the worst rulings by a state court in recent memory. In 2022 the state’s high court ruled 4-3 that penalties for defying Wisconsin open records laws could be ducked if the entity who illegally withheld items turned them over before a judge ruled on the case’s merits.

In effect, the move gave a green light to governments across Wisconsin to play games, hide information, and avoid proper sanctions. It was an unbelievably misguided and wrongheaded decision. We hope voters keep it in mind when selecting the next justices. A decision like this abrogates the court’s baseline responsibility to the people of our state, and should result in severe scrutiny.

State Rep. Todd Novak and Sen. Duey Stroebel moved last week to ask for cosponsors on a bill that would restore the ability of plaintiffs to seek recovery of attorney fees without a court having to find the case. It’s a clear, sensible move designed to ensure that the law is what guides the release of public information, not games played by officials.

Stroebel’s comments were particularly on point. The ruling, according to the senator, would embolden “taxpayer-funded entities who have shown a tendency for flouting public records requests.” There can be little question the ruling was an invitation to do just that.

The importance of public records to good governance is impossible to overstate. They were the subject of multiple requests during the late probe into the 2020 elections, and raised serious questions about the spending by Michael Gableman. The requests also undermined Gabelman’s essential credibility when he refused to turn over the records.

Republicans have used a similar approach to question Gov. Tony Evers’ handling of the parole and court systems. Those issues took center stage in the 2022 gubernatorial election.

The effect at local levels is, perhaps, even more critical. Legislative leadership and the parties they represent have the financial backing to carry out long-term legal battles for the records they want. That’s not the case for ordinary residents of Wisconsin, or even many of the companies that work within the state’s regulatory framework. It is and will always remain essential that such cases have the clout they need to keep a watchful eye on government.

Part of that clout is making sure that penalties exist for governmental bodies that would otherwise have little to fear from ignoring requests. And, since individual charges against officials for violations are vanishingly rare, financial risk is the primary tool available to compel reluctant bureaucrats to comply.

The Wisconsin Institute on Law and Liberty is certainly no nonpartisan body, but the institute’s statement on Tuesday was also pertinent. Lucas Vebber, speaking for the group, said “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.” Again, we find no cause to disagree.

The devil is, as ever, in the details and we haven’t had the opportunity to go through the proposal with a fine-tooth comb just yet. There may be some details that need revision. That’s true of virtually every proposal made in government.

But the basic goal of ensuring bad actors are not given free rein to trample on Wisconsin’s public access to information, records and officials, cannot be seriously called into question. Government is run by people and, as such, will always require guard rails.

Realigning Wisconsin law with clear intent, rather than with an erroneous, ill-considered ruling, is one of those guard rails. It’s part of the basic duties legislators should carry out. And, to that end, we’re very pleased to see legislators recognize that the post-ruling state of open records enforcement is unacceptable.

The attention to this critical issue is welcome, and we hope to see the Legislature find swift accommodation for the necessary changes.

— From the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram


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