Tony Evers needs to get religion on government transparency

By: - November 13, 2019 8:41 am
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Let me be clear about this: Gov. Tony Evers does not have a terrible record when it comes to open government. The reporters I know have not flagged any major changes in terms of access to records and meetings. The one open records request that I made of Evers’ office was responded to in a timely fashion, and I was granted access to hundreds of pages of records. (It was for a story about how hundreds of people were inquiring as to the possibility of receiving pardons, after Evers lifted his predecessor Scott Walker’s eight-year moratorium on them.) 

But Evers has repeatedly — and deservedly — drawn criticism for transparency missteps. A survey conducted by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty concluded that Evers’ office was “disorganized and dysfunctional” when it came to open records. It noted that he scrapped a public website that Walker had created to track state agency compliance with records requests.

Most distressing to me, in my role with the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, was the dismissive statement made by Evers’ spokesperson Melissa Baldauff stating that the office saw no reason to continue following the executive orders that Walker had issued to state agencies regarding open records requests.

“The Evers Administration strictly follows the Wisconsin Public Records Law and the guidance provided by the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Public Records Law Compliance Guide, not executive orders issued by prior administrations,” she said. 

That’s disappointing, since the orders issued by Walker actually went beyond what the law requires and the Attorney General advises. Tony Evers should not be turning his back on past practices that served to improve compliance.

Now Evers has drawn a fresh wave of criticism by refusing a request from reporter Amanda St. Hilaire of Fox6 News in Milwaukee for a single day’s worth of emails that he sent and received. The office’s open records lawyer, Erin Deeley, possibly without consulting Evers (who seemed genuinely surprised when asked about the denial at a press conference) argues that the request was unreasonably broad, because it contained no specifics as to subject matter.

I think that’s a mistake, and I am reasonably confident that if Fox6 were to sue over this denial, the Evers administration would lose. Wisconsin’s open records law contains a broad presumption of maximum public access. Evers’ office should not be looking for ways to say “No” to records requesters; it should be trying to find ways to say yes.

Having access to all email communications for a given time period is a legitimate ask. It is, for instance, the only way that media can get a sense of the various kinds of communications flowing into and out of the office. I know that other state officials and even state lawmakers, who have an otherwise lamentable record on open government, have fulfilled requests for records delineated by date and not subject matter. 

But Evers’ office has claimed, in response to St. Hilaire’s requests, that the lack of specificity would cause horrific consequences. 

“Wisconsin taxpayers should not be asked to pay the salary of a state employee to work exclusively on an insufficiently specific request for weeks, to the detriment of all other requests, and job responsibilities,” Deeley wrote.

I am reasonably certain that I could find a thirteen-year-old who could show Evers’ office how to identify and download a day’s or even a month’s worth of emails in no time at all. And there should not be any problem with needing to review them, as the governor’s email contact portal already gives sufficient warning that communications with the governor are not private.

“We encourage all Wisconsin citizens to reach out to the Office of Governor Evers,” the portal states. “But please know that any communications through this website are subject to release under Wisconsin’s public records law (Wis. Stat. §§ 19.31-19.39), and that it is generally our policy to release communications submitted through this website when requested via a public records request. Except as otherwise provided by law, any requester has a right to inspect any public record. Therefore, any information contained within your submission, including, but not limited to, your home or business address or telephone number, is open to public inspection upon request.”

In 2016, during the height of public backlash over Gov. Walker’s efforts to slash school spending and kneecap public employee unions, I sued over his office’s failure to promptly release the emails he was saying (correctly, as it turned out) that the majority of communications he was receiving from all over the country expressed support for what he was doing.

That lawsuit was settled in my favor and the governor’s office released more than 50,000 emails, with, as I recall, no redactions. 

There is no reason Tony Evers and his administration should not be equally transparent.

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Bill Lueders
Bill Lueders

Bill Lueders is editor of The Progressive magazine. He also serves as the elected president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a statewide group that works to protect public access to government meetings and records.