Information wants to be free

Alice Herman:

For individuals and organizations seeking state records, Wisconsin law is clear: the state guarantees public access to government business, barring “exceptional cases,” and identifies a lack of transparency as “generally contrary to the public interest.”

Despite the fact that the public right to state information is baked into Wisconsin legal code, freedom of information advocates say that state agencies frequently block or otherwise delay records requests.

“I would say that in recent years, we’ve seen more bad faith assertions of reasons to deny access [to public records],” says Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (and an Isthmus contributor).

To address the issue of transparency in government, Tom Kamenick, a former counsel for the conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), has founded a law firm specifically to handle open records cases in the state.

“The way the law’s written is pretty good among the states. Our definition of what’s covered by a record is quite broad, there’s very few exceptions to it similar to when it comes to meetings. A lot of governmental bodies are covered by open meetings law … but the enforcement is difficult,” says Kamenick. Many states — including Illinois, Connecticut and Hawaii — have created state commissions to handle records disputes. Wisconsin possesses no such organization, and furthermore, says Kamenick, “the attorney general and district attorneys can bring lawsuits but they rarely do, so it’s up to individuals to enforce it with lawsuits, which doesn’t happen often.”