Holding government accountable takes patience and time. Too often it takes lots of both – like waiting more than a year and half for a government agency to answer a simple open records request.
In July 2014, Wisconsin Watchdog caught wind of an altercation at the Jefferson County Fair. Someone had destroyed signs and property at the GOP booth.
This was no random, run-of-the-mill act of vandalism, however. After party members made the incident public on the Vicki McKenna Show, a local radio program, Wisconsin Watchdog investigated and learned that a Germantown kindergarten teacher named April Kay Smith had perpetrated the incident. She had first denied, then admitted to county law enforcement that she had torn up signs at the Republican booth after the fair had closed for the night because she was “just so angry with (Gov.) Scott Walker.” Walker had signed Act 10 into law several years earlier, reforming Wisconsin’s public employee collective bargaining law and drawing the ire of many public workers.
The story was reported in full by Wisconsin Watchdog – but it received no help from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. Just the opposite, in fact.
Like any responsible news organization, Wisconsin Watchdog had filed a open records request with the sheriff’s department seeking incident reports. No details about the incident were immediately forthcoming from the agency.
The request ended up taking more than a year and a half to fill, and even then it took legal pressure to get the sheriff’s department to comply. Just last week, the sheriff’s department, after a lengthy lawsuit, finally agreed to provide Wisconsin Watchdog with unredacted records of the incident. The settlement represents a huge victory for the press and open government. And in a stroke of poetic justice, it took place just in time for Sunshine Week, an annual nationwide celebration of government transparency and access to public information.
How did the sheriff’s department get away with dragging its feet for so long? Unfortunately, a little questionable legal reasoning and distrust of the press can make the government absurdly slow. Here’s a breakdown of the numbers showing the costly time and effort expended by Watchdog in pursuit of transparency:
1 year, seven months, 16 days – The total time between Wisconsin Watchdog’s first open records request to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department on July 22, 2014, and the release of the requested records following a lawsuit settlement, on March 9, 2016.
596 – The number of days between the initial request and the release of unredacted documents.
14,304 – The number of hours spent waiting for the requested information.
1 stubborn policy – In originally denying Wisconsin Watchdog’s request, the sheriff’s department cited department policy prohibiting the practice of publicly identifying information of suspects in police reports. That policy was driven by a Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decision declaring that Palatine, Ill., police were wrong in placing a parking ticket on the windshield of a vehicle, that doing so violated the driver’s personal information. The case involved the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act. Jefferson County authorities said the DPPA required it to redact personal information from its public reports. The federal court originally said placing the ticket on the windshield was a “disclosure,” but after remand and another appeal found that an exception permitted the disclosure.
Zero – Tom Kamenick, attorney for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, the public interest law firm that represented Wisconsin Watchdog in the open records lawsuit, said redaction policies like the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department’s are overly broad for no reason. He said there have been zero cases “where an open records request was filled and wound up making liable the people who filled it.”
3-3 – Last year, Wisconsin Watchdog’s open records lawsuit was stayed pending resolution of New Richmond News v. City of New Richmond, a case raising the same issue before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The court split 3-3 and remanded the case back to the court of appeals for consideration. The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department subsequently agreed to settle the Wisconsin Watchdog case but admitted no wrongdoing.