Jumping through hoops for records

UPDATE: The RFJ offers some further commentary on their original article: Editorial: No apologies for public business 

There is a nice article in the River Falls Journal detailing the experiences of students in a UW-River Falls journalism class trying to get public records. The descriptions of student encounters with records custodians have a common theme – in nearly every instance, the custodian of the records tried either to find out who was making the request and why they were doing so (which is not permitted by WI law see 19.35(1)), or else attempted to intimidate the requestors. Or both. Some of the requests were simply ignored (also not permitted by WI law see 19.35(4)(a) ), and only a couple were provided upon request without making the requestors jump through any hoops.

I wish I could say I find this shocking, but in fact it is very much in line with my own experiences whenever I’ve filed an open records request. There is a serious dearth of courtesy on the parts of the public servants who keep records toward the public they are keeping them for. Records custodians often either ignore, pry, or are downright rude to record requestors. Other than the possibility that these records custodians mama’s didn’t raise them right, I’m not sure why there is often so much hostility apparent when a member of the public asks for the records they are entitled to. The only reason that I have come up with is that there must be a general attitude on the part of public employees that requestors are nosy busy-bodies out to cause trouble. Now, there are probably some cases where that is true, but even if that were the truth in EVERY case, it has nothing to do with the legality of an individual wanting to examine public documents, and the illegality of public employees trying to interfere with the process.

So why the reticence? I’m afraid it might be that these government agencies are actually so disorganized that they don’t know how or where to find requested documents. To me, that means even more open records requests are called for. If an office can’t keep itself straight, then maybe the public needs to come in and oversee things more directly. Either that, or agencies as varied as elementary schools, ambulance sevices, university staff, etc. are trying to hide something. Guess what I think that calls for?


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