Archive for the 'public records' Category

Why do you want public records? Because they are public.

The opening line of the Wausau Daily Herald’s article about Alderman Tom Miller’s open records request for Bill Nagle’s old e-mails pisses me off:

A Wausau City Council member would not say Wednesday why he has asked to see more than four years worth of retired City Attorney Bill Nagle’s e-mails, or what he plans to do next after his initial request was denied.

So? Who cares what he plans to do with the information? Miller has every right to request whatever he wants, and does not owe an explanation to anyone.

I get that the paper wants to find (or create) a newsworthy story, but coming at it from this angle gives the impression that the people making public records requests are the ones deserving of scrutiny, as if they are doing something wrong. There is nothing wrong with being curious about the content of e-mails that the city attorney sent, and if they contain inappropriate information then the requestor is doing us all a favor by finding that out.


Useful blog

Laptop City Hall is a blog I’ve come across a few times recently, and I like it. Considering that city council meetings and the like are not always the most entertaining source of news, this blog makes them pretty interesting.

Yesterday’s posting mentions an ordinance before the city council to modify the the city’s public records policy. The goal of the ordinance is to discourage city employees from using instant messaging or text messaging to discuss city business, reason being that IM’s and texts are not subject to the Open Records law. I would suggest rather than trying to keep staff from using whatever form of communication they prefer, IM’s and text messages ought to be archived properly so that they can easily answer open records requests.

End run around the Open Records law

Ooooh, sneaky.

I’ve heard of contracts with language that would seem to prohibit the contents of the contract from being subject to FOIA laws, but I’m still sad to hear about them circulating through the Wisconsin government.

It seems fairly obvious to me that you can’t put wording into a contract that would break any other law (for example, ‘by the terms of this contract between the Parking Enforcement Division of Madison and XYZ Towing, XYZ Towing gets to keep any cars they find parked on the wrong side of the street’*), so why would union contractors and the city think that they can break the Open Records law? As the Journal Times puts it:

Workers and citizens could lose fundamental rights and protections based solely on negotiations. That’s twaddle.

ADDED: A similar issue is raising it’s head in California.

ADDED AGAIN: More about the bill in California from PolitickerCA.

*Totally made up example (in case it wasn’t obvious!).

Records Request Reply

So, 29 days after I asked the Dane County 911 Center for internal e-mails mentioning the Brittany Zimmermann incident, I received this reply. It spills onto the third page, so if you don’t want to read it all I understand (blogs have spoiled me for reading Walls Of Text), and I’m pulling out the interesting parts here.

First sign of trouble: I made the request directly to Joe Norwick, since the Dane County 911 website does not list an open records custodian (side note, the information currently on that website has been revised as of May 28, 2008 and looks much better now than it did a month ago), and my request was answered by Marcia MacKenzie, Dane County Corporation Counsel. Lawyers already?

Next sign of trouble: As the public documents that I am seeking access to are e-mails, that is the format I requested to receive them in. However, Marcia MacKenzie wants to print off all 116 pages responsive to my request ($0.25/page = 29.00) and mail them to me ($4.80) for a total of $33.80. Not a lot of money, but that’s not the point. This seems to me to be a violation of statute 19.35(3)(a) which states that fees “may not exceed the actual, necessary and direct cost of reproduction and transcription of the record”. It is neither actual or necessary to print off and mail these documents – e-mail will work just fine. I presume that the desire to print off the documents stems from

Yet more trouble: the desire to redact information from the publics eye. While I understand and am sympathetic to keeping details of an on-going police investigation on a need to know basis (until the investigation is closed, of course), I have difficulty imagining how 911 Center internal e-mails might affect the search for Brittney Zimmermann’s murderer.

According to this letter, Marcia MacKenzie has

“considered all relevant factors and balanced the public interests in disclosure versus the public interests in non-disclosure and have carefully reviewed all relevent statutory exemptions. It is my conclusion that the public interest in non-disclosure of the redacted or withheld information far outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”

Thank goodness there is someone in county government looking out for the poor, stupid public that wouldn’t know how to handle information if they ever got any!

Ugh, I’m starting to create my own Wall of Text here, and frankly I am too annoyed to continue for the moment. More when I get the taste of bile out of my throat.

Madison is not the only city with a troubled 911 center…

Lake Havasu in Arizona appears to be having some difficulties too.

I sure hope that no one at the Dane County 911 center has been destroying or altering public records in order to hide evidence of wrong doing. I should be able to tell you soon, since I finally received a reply to my open records request regarding internal e-mails on the Brittney Zimmermann case.

Read the letter I received (helpfully e-mailed with no subject line, thus landing it in my spam box for a few days) here. I haven’t read it thoroughly yet myself; come back for my thoughts soon!

Valid suit or embittered ex-employee?

For once there is an open records issue that I am somewhat ambivalent toward. Generally, it is very easy for me to say ‘if it was created in the public realm, then the public deserves access to it’, but I find myself sitting on the fence with this story.

According to the Post-Cresent, “A former Kimberly High School basketball coach is continuing a nearly two-month battle for access to documents that may have contributed to his dismissal.” At first blush, I say ‘absolutely, give him the records!’. If there was back room dealing that lost him his job he deserves to know it. But, upon reading further, I see that he has indeed received the documents that he requested. It is the fact that names were redacted from the letters he received that has led to the public records battle. Hm, are those names really germane to what the individuals (not public officials mind, but parents in the school district) had to say about him? The question of whether or not private citizen’s communications with public officials are a matter of public record is a hard puzzle to solve, and in fact, has not yet been solved to anyone’s satisfaction to date.

John Miron has a point though when he says that “Those submitting these letters are not a protected class and have no ‘confidentiality’ rights. The identity of the authors is relevant information that I am entitled to.” And based on that, I am forced to agree with him. As matters stand, people in communication with public bodies know (or should know) that public bodies are subject to FOIA, and they ought to proceed under the assumption that one day their communications could be made public.

So, I’m back to ‘absolutely, give him the records!’ and don’t redact them. The possibility that he might just be seeking the names of those in the community that don’t like him is not relevant to the greater issue of the publics’ right to public records.

No news on my end…

… but Badger Blogger has got the goods! I just knew there would be some interesting e-mail about how the Brittany Zimmermann 911 call went down.

HT Forward Our Motto.