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Public records belong to everyone



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November 27, 2012 | 01:21 PM
Journalists don't have a monopoly on open records. That's the beauty of public documents, everyone has access to them.

With a few legal exceptions, nearly every document produced from a government official — from emails to memos — is open to public inspection.

Citizens, not just reporters, can request police reports, budgets and even the salaries of government employees.

Some public records are readily available for free online. Others require a formal request.

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Public records can also become the conflict in court cases. Especially when governments — mostly lawyers — disagree over what records should be released.

Recently, Care for Lake Geneva, a nonprofit citizens organization, hired a Milwaukee law firm to obtain a secret memorandum of understanding between the city and a controversial developer.

What's no secret is that many of the group members were opposed to the developer's proposed plans. However, the motivation for having the document disclosed isn't important.

What is important is whether the record becomes public. If the record is released it will answer questions that have lingered about the settlement of a lawsuit between the city and the developer.

The release of the document could quash rumors, but, of course, it may stir new theories about the settlement, as well.

Obviously, the Regional News will closely watch the outcome of this request. Newspapers have a vested interest in public records.

How we obtain records

Regional News reporters routinely request open records from local governments, schools and law enforcement agencies.

Rarely are requests met with opposition. Occasionally, written requests are filed with government groups and police agencies.

Like Care for Lake Geneva, the Regional News has gone to court to fight for open records. Ironically, we were entangled in court seeking information from a person closely linked to Care for Lake Geneva.

Ideally, records requests aren't resolved in courtrooms. Attorneys have a habit of complicating matters. Many of our record requests are simply filed with a phone call or an email.

On a regular basis local police agencies provide us with blotters and information on arrest records.

Meeting agendas are faxed to our office daily, and frequently appear in reporters' inboxes. These agendas let us know discussion topics at public meetings.

Many records are available online. Passwords aren't needed to obtain them, just a good Internet connection.

Wisconsin Court records are available online on a site commonly referred to as CCAP, short for Consolidated Court Automation Programs. On CCAP, anyone can search for civil and criminal court cases.

Most local governments maintain websites where users can also obtain information. The village of Fontana has meeting agendas and minutes that date way back to 2005. The city of Lake Geneva has agendas, packets and minutes back to 2010.

The county government posts meeting minutes, agendas packets and visitors to the site can even watch video from the meetings. Although the video isn't always thrilling, its commendable that it is so easily available when needed.

Ultimately, what's important about public records is that they help ensure accountability. It doesn't matter whether a private citizen, a group or a newspaper requests the records.

Anyone can, and should, request information that they believe is important.

Robert Ireland is the managing editor of the Lake Geneva Regional News. He can be reached at RIreland@lakegenevanews.net

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