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About those open meetings

March 29, 2012

Bretl
I've never been a big fan of many of the so-called Hallmark holidays. These are the holidays whose origins can be traced back to marketing departments rather than some historical person or event. I suppose I might feel differently if I were more organized. Recognizing "sweetests" administrative professionals or even bosses aren't bad ideas, it's just that I have a hard enough time keeping track of birthdays and the more traditional holidays. Not content with having a single day, a number of organizations have appropriated an entire week or even month to promote their causes. A few of my favorites include National Prune Breakfast Month (January), Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month (February) and National Ghostwriters Week in March. If I sound cynical, I don't mean to be. A few of the awareness weeks and months actually do have an impact. One of these, National Sunshine Week, is the topic of this week's column.

While we've experienced our share of sun this winter, Sunshine Week, which took place earlier this month, actually refers to transparency in government. Transparency is the ease with which citizens can see what their government is doing. In fairness to Prune Breakfast Month, Sunshine Week has gained a little higher profile, in part, because the press makes a collective effort to promote it. Since a big part of their job is to keep track of government, they have a vested interest in making sure they have access to the most information possible. As a result, many newspapers highlight the week with stories on the topic. A few will send out reporters as sort of "secret shoppers" to make information requests of various governments and report on the results.

Two major safeguards ensure that local governments provide transparency. They are the open meetings and public records laws. With limited exceptions, state law requires that government meetings be open to the public. Disagreements can arise, from time to time, between local governments and the public or press as to when a meeting may be conducted in closed session. While there are some gray areas, in general, the law on open meetings has been made clearer by court decisions, over the years. The same cannot be said, in my opinion, of the public records law. In the 20 years that I have been responding to information requests, the law on the subject seems more complicated than ever. In circumstances like these, I am sometimes critical of the state for providing laws that are less than clear, but I don't think the state is really the culprit here. Changing technology and an increased awareness of privacy have combined to create uncertainty in this area.

Wisconsin's public records law starts with a clear enough statement on the issue. The public records law "shall be construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access, consistent with the conduct of governmental business." The statute then goes on to list numerous categories of records that cannot be released, including records that are exempt from disclosure by another state or federal law.

One appliance that I never remember seeing around the house as a kid was a paper shredder. Now we wouldn't think of throwing the bank statement into the trash unless it is first turned into confetti. A trip to the doctor's office these days means standing about a football field away from the reception desk until it's your turn to check in. I receive so many privacy notices in the mail that I often send them through the shredder without even opening them. All of these laws are fine from my perspective. Identity thieves and stalkers are out there and, all things considered, I'd rather that the guy behind me in line not know about my ailments.

My point here is that these laws apply to all people, including public employees. The public records law does not provide immunity to a government that releases information deemed confidential by some other law. While the press may not always agree, the denial of access to documents is often not about governments trying to "cover their tracks" but rather about safeguarding the public treasury from a lawsuit that would result if information was unlawfully released.

New technology has added to the complexity. The definition of record is broad under the law, as it should be, covering written as well as "electromagnetic" information. The law, however, was written at a time when government was a paper intensive operation. Today e-mail, the internet and a host of computer programs have, in many instances, replaced paper documents. In his compliance guide on the subject, Attorney General Van Hollen notes that the general principles of the public records law apply to information in electronic format, but points out that "unique or unresolved problems relating to storage, retention and access abound." One example is "metadata," which can contain valuable information about a document, but which may be hidden from view when the document is printed to paper or even viewed on a computer screen.

One way that governments can cut down on the amount of time they spend responding to records requests is to make the information available in the first place. In the case of Walworth County, our website is a great place to start. It contains more information than ever, including agendas, copies of documents that will be discussed at meetings, as well as streaming video of our meetings. If a visit to our website still doesn't provide the document you are looking for, call or write the custodian of the record you are looking for. If you're not sure who that is, you can write me at dbretl@co.walworth.wi.us.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors.