By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Apparently following the state’s open records law for Gov. Tony Evers’ Department of Natural Resources is optional — falling into the “nice-to-do category” but not really necessary during the pandemic.
At least that’s how DNR Deputy Secretary Todd Ambs, a long-time environmental bureaucrat, put it Wednesday in testimony before the Legislature’s budget-writing committee.
Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) asked Ambs and DNR Secretary Preston Cole about an email she had received from a concerned resident. The individual, who was seeking DNR records, was told that due to COVID-19 staff were working remotely and “non-essential travel is prohibited.”
“Presently, DNR staff will have limited access to physical files and no staff will be available on-site to allow physical inspection of files by the public until the Wisconsin State Government Badger Bounce Back Plan’s COVID-19 restrictions are lifted,” the email stated, referring to Evers’ snail’s pace re-opening edict.
So, while DNR officials could fulfill requests for electronic documents, they couldn’t do so for paper records because they would actually have to go into the office to search for them.
“Mr. Secretary, our laws don’t allow us to forego any open records requests, whether they are physical or electronic,” Bernier, a member of the Joint Finance Committee said.
That’s when Ambs stepped in and effectively said, “Hold my beer.”
He told the committee that the agency has to make sure it is keeping staff and customers safe, “while continuing to provide the vital natural resources service you expect from us.” That means the basics, the fundamentals of DNR offerings. Apparently searching through file cabinets in compliance with the state’s open records law isn’t a core function of the department — at least during a pandemic.
“Those things we’ve not been doing in the last several months were always in the nice-to-do-category,” Ambs said in his defensive-sounding defense.
Nice to do?
Cole eventually stepped in, pushing Ambs’ off his soap box about devoted DNR staff “putting themselves in harm’s way.” The DNR secretary said he didn’t want his agency violating any laws and promised to “dig into it” and get back to the committee with a response.
Bernier wasn’t having any of the courageous DNR staff talk, especially after Ambs informed the committee that only 10 percent of DNR employees were reporting to the office to work. He said they were in a “transition period” and the hope is that more staff would move from working remotely back to their offices — by June.
Bernier noted what Cole, Ambs and everyone knows: While 90 percent of DNR employees are working remotely, most are still shopping, going to appointments, taking their kids to school events and a host of other public activities in their private lives.
“To think a DNR employee doesn’t have to do the same things is ridiculous,” the senator said. “It sounds like DNR staff are in a different bubble than the rest of us.”
Different than many who don’t work in state government jobs, anyway. Evers’ has locked the public and most state employees out of taxpayer-owned offices for more than a year. He vetoed a Republican bill that required the governor to come up with a plan for their return to onsite work.
As for the transparency issue at DNR, Bernier said government employees don’t get to pick and choose which laws they follow — pandemic or not.
But Evers certainly has tried. His administration’s abysmal record on open records law is well documented, even as friendly news outlets try to cover for the Democrat. And the Evers administration has been caught several times breaking the law or ignoring the legislative branch in governing unilaterally. The Department of Natural Resources, as JFC member, Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) pointed out, had to be sued before it would follow state law on a wolf hunt.
The DNR’s position that filling paper open records requests can wait until the pandemic passes is just the latest example of an administration that believes following the law is optional.